Apathy, privilege and DEI

A blue sky with whispy clouds above two oceans that are meeting but do not mix. One is light green and the other a deeper green-blue.

Last week a blog I wrote on the business case for diversity was published on CIPR’s Influence site. On Twitter an industry colleague posted that the article made them depressed because “…those we seek to engage on diversity and inclusion shrug and say “I don’t care”.”

It led to an interesting discussion picking apart why this happens, culminating in the fact that this apathy or sense of pointlessness contributes to upholding oppression. My response was to say that this is where advocacy and allyship sits. Specifically:  

“This ignorance of those we seek to engage is upheld by the silence and inaction of their peers. Those with some power relative to those with most power rarely put their neck on the block for those without any. That middle line, if you like, is what continues to enable the disengagement.”.

That attitude – ‘why bother if people won’t listen to us anyway’ is privilege in action. It is a luxury marginalised and oppressed people do not have and it enables that middle line to feel justified to sit in their inaction. On the surface the thought process appears reasonable.

However, if the PR sector wishes to match its actions with its words on commitment to diversity and inclusion this is where efforts need to be directed. To put it in current terms, the people with the type of attitude described above, or those who sit in the bracket of ‘it doesn’t affect me, and so I won’t pay attention until it does’ (another point raised by my colleague on Twitter) are essentially Influencers. 

They have enough power to be in the room of board level decision makers, they probably have involvement in recruitment and management of teams – i.e. influence over promotion, training and opportunities. That’s enough power to enact change. 

The question then is why, if that power exists, it’s being used to retain the status quo and uphold systems of oppression. The reasons are two-fold; speaking up to engage decision makers & dismantle systems requires risking what they have, and speaking up requires an admission and acknowledgement of privilege and power. 

Challenging why people don’t speak up is often seen as too aggressive, but it’s critical to dismantling systemic barriers. That perception of feeling challenged in itself is a symptom of supremacy culture – those who have acquired status, wealth, power, money etc often categorise people into deserving and undeserving based on their position in life. 

However consciously or unconsciously, we see this played out in the treatment of disabled people and in socio-economic ways, e.g. the harmful and outdated narrative that poor people don’t deserve nice things, or that the lives of disabled people should be small and simple, if they are in receipt of benefits or state support.  

This is a difficult behaviour for public relations to change for two reasons; either the people behind such campaigns are themselves subject to these biases and haven’t yet done the work or marginalised people are being left to manage and implement diversity initiatives aimed at people with the attitudes referenced above. The usual result is a cycle of ineffectual initiatives or campaigns, which plays right into the narrative at the opening of this blog. 

The answer is equally as complex. Which is not generally what anyone wants to hear when it comes to addressing diversity and inclusion and PR’s tendency towards quick wins and fast results. After the last few years, from #metoo to Black Lives Matter, the responsibility and importance of this middle group’s role in dismantling systemic barriers has been brought into much sharper focus. Yet reluctance to do so remains the default status. 

In reality there’s only so much that campaigns and initiatives can achieve on their own whilst those with the privilege and luxury to shrug continue to do so. Power for change exists in this group, but they have to be prepared and willing to match the efforts being made by those to whom power is denied.

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