A few weeks ago the POTUS issued an executive order(EO) on “Combating race and sex stereotyping.” The conversation about this re-emerged during the recent presidential debate. If this were any other president we’ve had in the past 50 years (with an exception or two) an EO issued with that title would have been exciting as it would likely support the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners like me. As the Co-Founder and Principal consultant at Hyphens and Spaces, I support teams and organizations in building capacity to infuse equity into their organizational fabric.
“This president, though perhaps inadvertently, has called us forward in the DEI field to do better in our workshops. This EO asks us to hold ourselves and participants accountable to employ the tools of inclusion in our efforts to build it.”
But that order, coming from this president, unsurprisingly put me on guard. I fundamentally object to the premise of this EO because I believe it was issued in order to halt the long-overdue opportunities for individuals of all races to understand, connect with, and change the ways our systems oppress many to benefit the few. However, in reading it I found I actually agree with many of the statements made. In fact, I felt that this president, though perhaps inadvertently, has called us forward in the DEI field to do better in our workshops. This EO asks us to hold ourselves and participants accountable to employ the tools of inclusion in our efforts to build it. Let me give you a snippet of what I mean by breaking down line-by-line what are described as “Divisive concepts” in the EO. The EO effectively prohibits training content that purports the following (note: direct quotes from the EO are bolded and my responses follow beneath):
“(1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;”
Totally! Down with superiority language, particularly language that centers or normalizes whiteness and maleness in juxtaposition to the beautiful arrays of racial, ethnic, and gender identities we all hold. This a disservice to all, including white males as it feeds into a paternalistic narrative that can constrain their full self-expression.
“(2) the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;”
Not at all. The US is a fundamentally capitalist country. Racism and Sexism are only tools for that work. While capitalism may not require racism to function, the American brand of capitalism was built on the stolen labor of enslaved African people, and the stolen land and slaughter of Indigenous people. American racism was born out of the need to morally justify that systemic dehumanization. Likewise, sexism supported a social order that kept power and wealth in the hands of the very few, a pattern we see repeated to this day.
“(3) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;”
Agreed! Bias is a human trait that shows up regardless of race or gender thus any of us who experience power or privilege (that is the vast majority of Americans of all races in different situations) regardless of race or gender has the opportunity to oppress. We also have the choice to consciously work as allies instead.
“(4) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex;”
What can I say, that’s the law!
“(5) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;”
I had to read this a couple of times (that double negative is tricky), but essentially my understanding is that it says we should encourage people not to consider race or gender when it comes to treatment. I agree with this on principle. My challenge is that it presumes that we should operate with a color-blind and gender-blind mind as if we had in fact achieved a truly equal society. I would love to be in a world where my race and gender did not impact my opportunities for success, interpersonal interactions, and frankly, right to live according to the enacted rules of our system. But, we aren’t in that place now. In fact, I am already treated as a threat, as worth less, and as disposable with respect to my race and gender on a regular basis. In short, I agree with this mindset but with the caveat that in order for it to be true we must acknowledge and actively correct the ways equal treatment isn’t true for most of society.
“(6) an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;”
Yup, I’ve met wonderful people and–well people who may still need to work on themselves in all shades and genders! Trust me, neither moral shadiness nor soundness discriminates.
“(7) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;”
We may diverge a bit on this one Mr. President. We’ve all inherited a past in America that is chock-full of structural racism and sexism (meaning it’s been built into our legal, economic, social systems e.g. voting rights, land/homeownership, schooling, etc.). How can we divorce the past from the present when the impacts are still quite palpable? We bear both the privileges and burdens of that and we’re responsible to use what we’ve been given to create the world we want to see.
“(8) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or”
Now we’re back on track! I’m sure the President means to be protective of white people with this statement (more specifically white men because–well it’s on theme) due to the common feelings of guilt and shame that can arise from confronting uncomfortable conversations about racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. However, when the idea is applied to everyone it’s actually quite reassuring. I certainly, don’t want to continue to experience the psychological distress caused by racism and sexism. As a Black woman, I’m glad the President is advocating for my mental health. Those racial and gender-based microaggressions take such a toll!
“(9a) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.”
Yes! I agree meritocracy is a solid aspirational concept that, in of itself, is neither racist nor sexist and likely wasn’t created with the sole intention to oppress. However, in practice because of systemic inequity that concept remains aspirational. For marginalized individuals “hard work ethic” most often does not equate to either economic or social stability nor success.
“(9b) The term “divisive concepts” also includes any other form of race or sex stereotyping or any other form of race or sex scapegoating. ‘Race or sex stereotyping’ means ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his or her race or sex. ‘Race or sex scapegoating’ means assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex. It similarly encompasses any claim that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.”
This is the meat of it! On the definition of “race or sex stereotyping” I’m with you on all of that with one exception. Stereotyping and ascribe traits or characteristics to people simply because of presumed racial or gender identity is harmful, inaccurate, and can be life-threatening in certain situations. So agreed there. My one exception is with ascribing privileges–that one is a non-negotiable. If it helps I don’t actually need to ascribe the privilege to you in order for it to be true. Privilege is baked into our systems and need not be acknowledged or even actively taken up for it to benefit those who are privileged. Otherwise, I agree, we needn’t ascribe values, morals, ethics, etc to any individual on the basis of race or sex. Given the opportunity, folks can tell you exactly who they are based on their actions and principals. I’m working toward a world where those alone are the basis for others’ judgment of us.
Likewise with “race and sex scapegoating”, I agree that there isn’t anything inherent in our oppression of others. See my statement above about choosing allyship over oppression. I’m all about ridding ourselves of the unhelpful fault and blame conversations and moving into the awareness and action conversations.
“Let’s stop diversity training once and for all and have accountability-focused inclusion conversations.”
The premise of this EO remains disturbing as it is designed to halt the long-overdue work of acknowledging the different realities Americans of different races and genders experience on the daily basis because of systematized oppression (Side note: I was particularly appalled at the invocation of the 54th infantry and Rev. Dr. King. Both are cases of Black people who were literally killed for standing against oppression and were radical outliers in their times with the same “fringe” ideologies that this EO aims to silence).
Alas, I still agree with some central points. DEI workshops that reinforce blame, stereotyping, and scapegoating can cause more harm. We are called forward by the President’s Office to hold our work to an even higher standard. One where we can address white supremacist frameworks (this refers to the normalized ideas, not the individuals who believe in white supremacy) and systems of oppression as factors that we are ALL subject to and have an opportunity to account for, rather than spending our precious energy and attention on unhelpful emotions and actions such as guilt, shame, blame, and scapegoating.
“For those federally-fund organizations who saw this EO and retracted your DEI work, I encourage you to meet the President’s challenge by leaning-in further.”
No one needs blame-focused diversity training that seeks to demonize or polarize. I’m sure none start with that intention. But they can end that way without a skilled facilitator with an aligned vision. As facilitators, there is value in standing for and demonstrating empathy, stating our perspectives, and validating other’s right to hold theirs. We should also explain the impact of those perspectives on others and hold ourselves and others accountable for those impacts. Let’s stop diversity training once and for all and have accountability-focused inclusion conversations.
For those federally-fund organizations who saw this EO and retracted your DEI work, I encourage you to meet the President’s challenge by leaning-in further. Engage with due diligence DEI partners who have stepped up the conversation right in line with the President’s orders 😉.