Diversity and Inclusion Work in the Age of Global Populism
Dr. Kassie Freeman served as a VIP speaker for the German Marshall Fund’s event “Advancing Women of Color in Transatlantic Relations” and we welcome the insights she and her colleagues Dr. Henry M. Levin and Dr. Ernest Morrell are sharing with GMF stakeholders on a critical issue at this juncture in the political trajectories of the transatlantic partners.
Noam Chomsky, during an historic conversation with Harry Belafonte in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Democracy Now, voiced a degree of optimism for the direction of democracy because he views the next generation as more progressive and open to change. We support Chomsky’s positive outlook, but with a note of caution. How diversity and inclusion are currently messaged in the popular discourse will significantly influence how people of all ages respond to change during a period of global populism. An engaged transatlantic cooperation focused on policy, leadership, and civil society is needed now more than ever if we are to sustain, or even advance, robust multicultural democracies.
Following the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the U.S. presidential election in late 2016, media coverage of the surge in populist movements has been largely reactionary and limited in its focus to immediate political outcomes. However, lost in these discussions is a consideration of the underlying sentiments toward cultural difference, often exacerbated by a problematic model of diversity and inclusion work that has led to a widening of perceived racial and ethnic tensions and a pushback against politicians and policies that advocate equity and tolerance.
If populism is a push back against governments and/or elites controlling the lives of “ordinary citizens,” it is incumbent upon political and educated elites to reconsider a continued push for diversity and inclusion using old models — for example, discussion groups where people are ill prepared to present their true feelings. How can the meaning of diversity and inclusion and delivery of discussions and relationships be reconceptualized in the age of global populism? The work of the African Diaspora Consortium makes three points: first, we propose that the case for diversity and inclusion work is more important than ever but must actually have a broader and more inclusive focus; second, we advocate that the model for enhancing diversity and inclusion must move away from talk and blaming to highly concrete and cooperative actions aimed at making positive changes; and third, we suggest diversity and inclusion work must ask a different set of questions, and that work must be cognizant of the age we live in where populations will resist forced directives from perceived elites.
Several important challenges present themselves when we take up diversity and inclusion in an age of global populism. We see groups on both sides of the Atlantic pushing back against what are perceived as forced interventions related to diversity and inclusion from the political and academic elite. Most people across groups and borders are saying, “enough already,” do we need any more discussions about difference? Why can we not focus on our shared commonalities and goals? Even more forcibly, groups want to know why we need to discuss diversity beyond the confines of our borders when we are struggling with these discussions at a national level. As populist sentiments are forcing an emphasis on nationalism both inside and outside our borders, these questions continue to drive engaging discussions.
On the one hand, globalization has made interconnectedness between individuals easier. Yet, with all the possibilities of interacting and exploring different cultures, there seems to be less understanding of interactions between different cultures globally. It is ironic that such negativity linked to diversity has grown during a period when populations have become more diverse globally, from gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. When used appropriately, we suggest that education can be a much more effective tool for engaging diversity and inclusion structured and presented differently.
One reason why diversity and inclusion have a negative connotation in current discussions is the way diversity has been messaged. In the age of global populism, discussions must be inclusive of all groups and the messaging must be organic and grassroots in nature; for example, ideas and discussions must flow up and down and not just from the top downward. Individuals will feel uncomfortable and resist any views that feel forced. It is also important that discussion leaders suspend their own prejudices so that discussions can move to a place of authenticity for all participants.
In the age of global populism, if the goal is to bring groups together, labeling individuals as racist, sexist, or homophonic is unacceptable. This does not mean that there are not individuals who fit in these categories. But the emphasis will need to be placed on the action rather than placing blame with labels. For example, in countless interviews following the election of President Trump, individuals from varying groups indicated that being labeled racist was their single biggest revolt and led to widespread silence about their voting preference.
The third point concerns those individuals and organizations devoted to diversity and inclusion work. Those who take action, rather than simply talking about the issues, will be the ones to rise up with innovative ways to address the challenges in the age of globalism. The recent decision taken by The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) to only consider films that are defined as diverse for their annual awards is a sterling example of action over talk.
Our work is another striking example of using education as a tool for enhancing diversity. Through the work of our organization, the African Diaspora Consortium, individuals are often surprised to hear the interest and educational value of our work across groups and individuals. We invite individuals to broaden their base of knowledge rather than forcing a position.
People of all ages are surprised to learn of the minority populations that have lived in other countries longer than African Americans in the United States; for example, Black British in Great Britain. Few people — even highly educated people — know that five of the world’s largest populations of African descent outside of Africa are in South America, or about the Romani (Gypsy) populations in Hungary, or about the historical Afro-Germans or Turkish populations in Germany. Few people even know that there are historically populations of African descent in Russia. From educational and economic perspectives, these populations must be taken into consideration, from global employment opportunities to political understanding and partnerships.
Afro-Germans, as an example, share challenges with others in the transatlantic community but also have interesting differences. We will share and study these in the productive context of promoting music and the arts, international exchanges of students, courses on the African Diaspora, and research on common challenges and similarities.
Presenting historical and current knowledge and experiences allows individuals across groups to discuss their views openly because the focus is not on who is right or wrong, labeling individuals or groups, rather, the emphasis is on the action of broadening focus and discourse across countries and groups. It means that governments and people globally use knowledge production as a way to broaden educational outcomes without resorting to what has not worked.
Global populism is here to stay, at least in the near term, and diversity and inclusion will require different actions. With a movement away from labeling, different messaging and delivery of group discussions about diversity and inclusion, and action rather than continuous discussions, we tend to agree with Chomky’s assessment that there should be reason for optimism toward the direction of diversity and inclusion in the age of global populism.
Kassie Freeman, Ph.D. is president and CEO of The African Diaspora Consortium and senior faculty fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Henry M. Levin, Ph.D., William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University; Vice Chair, Planning and Advisory Committee, the African Diaspora Consortium
Ernest Morrell, Ph.D., Macy Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University; Chair, Planning and Advisory Committee, the African Diaspora Consortium
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.