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The fog of artificial impact and the curse of ‘performative DEI’

Jun 12, 2023

Tiara Hughes

In an era where social and environmental consciousness is increasingly valued, companies have recognized the importance of projecting a positive image of their impact on society. They strive to appear as champions of diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) both internally and externally.

However, beneath the surface of these well-crafted narratives lies a murky reality: Companies engage in performative practices, appearing committed to equitable workplaces and community welfare while doing the bare minimum to effect real change.

This “fog of artificial impact” is a smoke screen that obscures the true intentions and actions of these corporate and nonprofit entities.

Internally, companies emphasize their dedication to creating culturally-diverse and equitable work environments. They conduct DEI training, issue statements condemning discrimination, and often tout their efforts to hire individuals from marginalized backgrounds.

While these initiatives may signal progress, upon closer examination, their efforts are often nothing more than token gestures or hollow policies. DEI initiatives, instead of leading to tangible change, might merely serve as a checkbox to boost public perception.

True equity and inclusivity demand systemic change, but the fog of artificial impact allows companies to settle for surface-level diversity without confronting deeper-rooted biases.

One common indicator of performative equity is the lack of meaningful representation at various levels of the organization. Companies may hire a few individuals from diverse backgrounds for distinguished roles while neglecting to address the systemic barriers that hinder others from ascending to leadership positions.

Furthermore, in order to appear diverse and inclusive, some companies resort to tokenism, a practice that involves appointing individuals from marginalized groups to prominent positions solely for appearances.

These token minorities are positioned to purportedly reflect the communities they serve. However, beneath this surface-level representation they lack true agency, competitive pay, and genuine influence within the company.

Additionally, companies may overlook the root causes of inequality and instead adopt superficial fixes. They may implement token gestures, such as hosting diversity-themed events or participating in publicized social causes, without fully addressing deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities within their own structures.

Moreover, token minorities, often celebrated as the face of diversity, are typically placed in visible positions such as spokespeople, brand ambassadors, or DEI officers.

They are tasked with projecting an image of inclusivity and understanding the experiences of marginalized communities. Companies may use these individuals as a shield against accusations of discrimination, signaling to the public that they value diversity.

However, this representation often lacks substance, as the token minority’s role is frequently limited to symbolism and does not translate into tangible influence or meaningful contributions. These individuals may be silenced when it comes to decisions that truly impact DEI within the organization, effectively rendering them powerless despite their apparent prominence.

These performative practices extend to external interactions as well. Companies often portray themselves as benevolent entities dedicated to serving their clients and communities, creating the illusion of caring deeply for their needs.

They engage in socially-responsible marketing campaigns, philanthropic endeavors, and community outreach to bolster their carefully-curated public image.

But behind the facade of altruism, some companies exploit communities for their resources while failing to make genuine efforts to understand and address their needs.

The fog of artificial impact not only hampers real progress but also creates a sense of complacency within organizations. When companies believe they have done enough to appear socially responsible, they are less motivated to enact substantive change.

Consequently, the urgent issues of racism, sexism, and other biases persist within these workplaces, perpetuating an environment of inequity. Unmasking performative companies and fostering authentic impact requires collective action.

Moving forward, the following steps can be taken:

— Transparency and accountability: Companies should be transparent about their efforts, successes, and failures in promoting DEI. Regular reporting can help hold them accountable for their impact initiatives.

— Internal structural changes: Authentic change requires examining and rectifying internal biases, policies, and practices. Companies should prioritize creating pathways for marginalized employees to ascend to leadership roles expeditiously.

— Empower marginalized voices: Truly including them in decision-making processes can lead to a more meaningful impact. Companies should value their contributions by providing competitive pay and opportunities for growth.

— Engaging communities as partners: Instead of using communities as mere beneficiaries of corporate generosity, listening to community needs as equal partners can lead to more sustainable, community-driven solutions. Furthermore, clients and communities must scrutinize companies by seeking out evidence of tangible impact and holding companies accountable for their claims.

— Supporting authentic allyship: Companies should encourage employees to become authentic allies, advocating for marginalized colleagues and communities they serve, as well as speaking up about discriminatory practices. Genuine allyship requires ongoing learning, support, and active engagement.

To drive authentic impact, companies must embrace transparency, address internal biases, and engage with communities as genuine partners. Likewise, they must go beyond hollow promises and photo opportunities to instigate real change.

By acknowledging and addressing biases and inequities, businesses can begin to dissolve this fog and pave the way for a more equitable and just future.

Tiara Hughes is a senior urban designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, founder of FIRST 500 and a landmark commissioner.