Is DEI work effective? Is the tide truly turning?

Lately I find myself wondering if much of the anti-racism work of the last several years has done more harm than good. Admittedly, as the executive director of one of the oldest anti-racism organizations in the United States and as a longtime anti-racist writer and speaker, it may seem strange to hear me say that.

But I admit that I am starting to think this work has not been nearly as impactful as many would like to believe. I think there has been a great shift around racial awareness, across the globe. And I think awareness is critical, but awareness alone doesn’t actually move the needle. 

In fact, increasingly I think there are times when awareness can actually create further racial harm. Particularly if it exists in a vacuum without support or a plan beyond mere awareness. 

Too many Black people and other people of color have bared their souls in the name of racial awareness only to be left raw and exposed but see little or no payoff from it.

To constantly be on the front line of creating awareness is to also find yourself reliving racial traumas, often without the support to move forward and heal. Awareness also runs the risk of reducing us to nothing more than racial identities or show pieces, without consideration for the full spectrum of our humanity. 

I most certainly have found myself in this place on more than a few occasions. It is not comfortable and what exactly does it change? Often, nothing. 

Racial change comes mainly from two things: shared goals that are measurable and accountable relationships. As we are seeing, even laws that are created to make things more equitable are not secure. They are subject to the whims and fancy of the times. As a result, there are younger generations of white folks who feel oppressed because while we changed laws, we never actually changed hearts. We never built intergenerational, multiracial movements that endured and sustained. We created legislation and assumed it was mission accomplished. As we all learned with Roe v Wade, though, nothing is safe in legislation or court rulings, no matter how “established” and not even if the majority of the population wants it in place. 

Often when I talk about relationships as part of anti-racism work, this is where people get stuck and where it becomes a challenge. Which, given the highly individualistic nature of the United States, is not terribly surprising. Ours is a society that places a premium on the individual rather than the collective. So, thinking about the collective is not our norm—but until we do make it our norm, change will be incremental and tenuous at best. 

Even when people do attempt to build relationships to create change, they are often fragile and superficial at best and not built to endure. 

The sad story of Melissa DePino and Michelle Saahene is a cautionary tale of the downside of attempting change without being rooted in an actual relationship. In what seems like a million lifetimes ago, back in 2018, two Black businessmen in a Philadelphia Starbucks asked to use the restroom. Instead of a quick trip to the loo, a white Starbucks employee called the police on the men and they ended up in handcuffs. Saahene and DePino were both present and witnessed the incident, which ended up being recorded and going viral. Afterwards, they decided to partner up to create both racial awareness and a non-profit with a focus on corporate DEI work. 

For a hot moment, Saahene and DePino were the latest racial justice darlings. A Black woman and white woman coming together to work on racial justice. You know, the type of heartwarming story that gives people “hope.” I should probably add that during this time, DePino—who followed me on Twitter and read my blog—reached out and we had a conversation. At the time, it did seem hopeful, but fast forward to the present moment and, well, they are no longer business partners and they aren’t even friends. 

As I read this piece about where they are now, I am not surprised. In fact, as I have deepened my own anti-racism practice since 2018, I would say it would be more surprising to learn that they were still working together and friends.


There was nothing to ground them and keep them together when conflict arose. They were not friends to begin with and they never became friends. They were two strangers across race and generations who came together to do good. But without a relational base and deeper connection, such connections are flimsy at best. 

Throw in capitalism and other factors amidst these changing times, and you have a base for a nasty pot of human conflict stew.

Like many before them, Saahene and DePino entered the anti-racism training field when corporations were eager to jump on the hottest new thing. The nasty racist Trump years when paired with the then-growing Black Lives Matter movement created a moment when no reasonable person or organization wanted to be left behind. Thus, any white person paired with a Black person could make a tidy sum speaking to corporations. For a few years, it was the golden days of anti-racism work with a seemingly endless spigot of anti-racism cash. 

Which has turned out to be nothing more than an ahistorical moment in time. In the years since 2020, questions have started to arise about the long-term effectiveness of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work. Especially when it comes to those one-time sessions and workshops. Unless laws are actually being broken, the type of change that anti-racism work has historically created is a long game. It’s the kind of commitment that corporate environments don’t embrace—they want clear results and they want them fast, no matter how deeply entrenched or complex the problem is. These types of environments usually are not designed for the type of soul-searching and relationship-building that the work actually requires. 

However, I digress. In the case of DePino and Saahene, it seems that DePino—despite doing this work—very much operated from the framework of whiteness, which isn’t terribly surprising. Meanwhile, if the media reports are accurate, Saahene started a journey of healing that is crucial for Black people—particularly in this work—and in the end, what they started was no longer mutually compatible. 

Unfortunately, for too many white people the problem is good intentions without doing the heavy lifting of self-examination and building a base of shared connection beyond the racial moment. That is what keeps us collectively trapped and leads to us rarely moving the needle. It also creates a lot of harm for the Black folks and others folks of color who were a part of their journey. 

Whiteness rarely is able to lay itself down long enough to allow for the type of growth that starts internally and expands externally. I see this far too often—often enough that I have a few comrades who are on speed text for when I encounter these moments. 

It is typically a white woman who has no connection to me as a person outside of a racial justice connection. A well-meaning white person who wants something of me, without ever questioning why I should do anything for them. What connection have we built? Do we even have a foundation of trust? 

If those things don’t exist, you have no business trying to “do” racial justice awareness with any person of color. Because despite your intentions, the odds are too high that you will create more harm than good. 

In the end, the anti-racism/DEI/racial justice market is self-correcting—this has never been popular work. It is relational. It is a process and a journey, and awareness alone will change nothing.

Ask anyone who has ever struggled to make lifestyle changes for their own health. Few are able to just instantly make change, even when the changes are needed for their very lives. Then, when they do begin, if change doesn’t come quickly enough for their tastes or it becomes “too hard,” they give up.

The DEI market and related areas in the field are contracting and, in the end, that isn’t a bad thing. Fewer people doing more meaningful work is better than a crowd of people working at odds with each other. It is important to be actively working on a parallel journey of internal healing from racial trauma while trying to change the world. Otherwise, you simply recreate that which you set out to fight against.

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Image by Alejo Storni via Unsplash

1 thought on “Is DEI work effective? Is the tide truly turning?”

  1. I am 83. Actually things are better. Thing improve with an unevenness First we had to establish to a whole generation that races are artificial constructs designed by cultures for their cultural purposes. Even that most elementary education isn’t yet complete in either race. Simultaneously we have to de-stereotype all groups. A lot of people don’t realize that, even if they aren’t feeling hostile to another group, they are still carrying the stereotypes. (Jews are good lawyers. Black people are musical.) Those people don’t think of themselves as bigots, and they probably aren’t. They just still retain bits of unexplored hand-me-down “wisdom” they haven thought about deeply. The more we can scramble and truly integrate society, the sooner that will improve. That means we have to address inequity as rapidly as we can because it doesn’t happen without effort. People who prefer to live in rural areas will have rural friend based on common interests. Urban people will have urban friends based on common interests. And neither group will blame discord on race.

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