Last fall, I was the facilitator of a Zoom-based diversity workshop at a liberal arts college. It opened in a familiar way. A student started by stating her gender pronouns and went on to describe herself as straight, white, middle class, Christian, American and of European heritage. She explained how each one of her identities gave her privilege and power, and how she’d known mostly people like herself growing up. In college, she hoped to be an ally to people who came from different identities and had different experiences.
Most of the other students on the Zoom screen (also white, American, Christian and mostly middle class) nodded gravely. They had detected the confessional tone in the speaker’s voice. Everyone knew what was meant to come next.
Everyone, apparently, except for the student who unmuted herself and spoke. She wore a hijab, had a foreign accent and an enthusiasm that burst off the screen.
She, too, began by naming her identities: Muslim, an international student from Egypt and from a family that values education. And then she said that each one of those identities are privileges. But she didn’t seem embarrassed about it. She seemed proud.
Being Muslim, she had the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to guide her life and to give her strength.
Being Egyptian meant being part of an ancient and glorious civilization.
Being from a family that valued education gave her an opportunity to study in the United States.
And all of us, she concluded, because we are getting such a good education, will become powerful enough to achieve our dreams.
“Masha’Allah (thanks be to God),” she said, “for these privileges and opportunities.”
Near total bewilderment crossed the faces of the other students in the diversity workshop. They just didn’t know what to do with this. The silence lasted so long, and was so uncomfortable, I unmuted myself to say something, and then quickly muted myself again.
Because you know what was about to come out of my mouth? I was about to say to the Egyptian Muslim international student:
“You’re doing this diversity workshop wrong. When a middle-class white American Christian says that her identities are all associated with privilege, in that particular confessional tone, during a diversity workshop … that’s a cue for someone of your particular constellation of identities. And your lines go something like this:
“Being Muslim means being oppressed by Christians; being Egyptian means being oppressed by Western civilization; being brown means being constantly subject to white supremacy.
“And then you’re supposed to say that it’s good that there’s a group of white American Christians willing to do the work of reckoning with their own power and privilege, but if they truly wanted to ‘see’ you they still had a long way to go.”
So now you know why I muted myself. Because when you make the invisible script of diversity work explicit you kind of realize how ridiculous it sounds.
Think about the stock characters the script requires us to play. Straight white Christian men are assigned the part of “the guilty.” Racial and religious minorities, and gay people and women, are relegated to the role of “the fragile.” To feel less guilty, the “dominant group” has to aid the minority group in feeling more frail. Then this strange alchemy takes place and white Christians are magically no longer the oppressors, they now get to call themselves allies. Meanwhile, the minorities, we’ve only increased in our frailty — we are so fragile, we can’t even help ourselves.
This strange alchemy takes place and white Christians are magically no longer the oppressors, they now get to call themselves allies. Meanwhile, the minorities, we’ve only increased in our frailty.
When dogmas are most dangerous
Why are we doing this? I mean, what purpose does it serve?
For the record, if you truly believe your various group identities automatically make you an oppressor, and you feel the need to confess your guilt, be my guest.
More importantly, if you feel vulnerable based on your identities, and it’s totally reasonable that some people at some times will, you should feel absolutely free to say so, and seek the assistance you need.
But neither declaration should be assumed, and neither role should be forced.
Part of the reason I say this is to uphold the dignity of the individual. People are not tropes, they’re poems — infinite in their particulars. We should be making appreciative inquiries into people’s magnificent individuality, not dogmatic declarations about their ascribed identities.
But part of this is actually about how we understand diversity work about group identity. Dogmas are most dangerous when they’re wrong.
I think it’s wrong to say that every white person is best described as an oppressor who ought to feel guilty.
But that’s actually not the part of the diversity script that bothers me most. The part that I find truly galling is how the whole production requires racial and religious minorities like me to violate the substance of our core identities.
I experienced racism growing up. It was ugly and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy. But my family taught me a different story, a story of pride in identity. “You come from a glorious culture,” my mom would stress. “The most delicious food, the most colorful fashion, the most complex music. As far as your skin, people spend countless hours and thousands of dollars sitting in the sun to try to get your skin color. Be proud God gave it to you for free.”
Of course you seek to defeat other people’s bigotry and prejudice. But you don’t define yourself by its effect on you.
The message: Your culture is more powerful than their prejudice.
The pride was especially instilled with respect to religious identity.
The Quran teaches Muslims that all humanity is given the breath of God, and commanded by the Most High to be his deputy on creation. It is an honor that God does not even give to the angels.
What greater privilege could there be than knowing that we carry with us God’s breath? And how powerful does it make us feel that God endows us with the capacity to guide creation?
Everybody should have the privilege of declaring themselves privileged — and powerful. And then we ask the all-important question: What is your responsibility?
Too often the invisible script of what we call DEI, or diversity, equity and inclusion, work requires that we narrate virtually the opposite story. It asks us to emphasize how we have been victimized by Islamophobia rather than inspired by Islam. Playing that role puts us in danger of violating our faith.
People are not tropes, they’re poems — infinite in their particulars. We should be making appreciative inquiries into people’s magnificent individuality, not dogmatic declarations about their ascribed identities.
When DEI work is a good thing
This fall, literally tens of millions of people will go through some form of diversity work. The invisible script of DEI work will be handed out and read aloud in elementary schools and high schools, colleges and universities, companies and organizations.
DEI has become standard operating procedure.
And I think that’s a good thing.
Good DEI work is absolutely essential to the American project. The United States is the first attempt at a mass-level multiracial, multiethnic, interfaith democracy. For centuries, political philosophers believed that a country like ours could never be. After all, we humans are wired to prefer people who look and pray like us and to be suspicious of those who don’t. We live in an impossible nation. What we have in the United States is to be cherished and strengthened.
We do that by exercising the muscles of engagement across difference: to expand the knowledge base, to learn the skills, to nurture the qualities of diversity work. Bridges of cooperation don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground — people build them.
The question is how do we do this?
I think the way that Egyptian Muslim international student flipped the script of DEI work is worth reflecting on. She heard the word “privilege” associated with being American, Christian and of European heritage, and she assumed that the speaker was making a positive comment. After all, why wouldn’t you be proud of what you believe and where you’re from? So she responded in kind, speaking with pride from the content of her tradition rather than somebody else’s social construction of her identity.
After the momentary confusion passed, something remarkable happened. The other students started following the script offered by their classmate. People spoke about trips to their ancestral villages in countries like Italy and Croatia, and learning the stories of what their great-great-grandparents built and why their great-grandparents emigrated. One said that she had started attending Bible study at the Lutheran church her grandfather had built and was feeling a deeper connection to her faith.
What DEI ought to look like
And that, I think, is what DEI work ought to look like.
So let’s be clear: It’s not a melting pot. That’s the metaphor I grew up with. And not just in my history books, but also in my life. When I was in high school, my family started making biryani for Thanksgiving. Turkey is a feast food of American culture. Biryani is a feast food of Indian Muslims. Do you know how many people I told in school what we had for Thanksgiving? Zero. That’s the melting pot. You hide your distinctive identity, and melt your uniqueness away so that you can blend with everyone else. No one wants to go back to that.
The dominant metaphor of diversity work right now is a battlefield. We are meant to tend to the wounded and be angry at the aggressors. But people are aggressors based on their actions, not their identities. And if you only focus on your wounds, you forget that you have muscles, a spine, a brain. As my friend Trabian Shorters likes to say, a whole constellation of assets and aspirations is really the core of who people are. Why would we encourage people to only tell the story of their hurt and pain? That is inviting them to be in a conspiracy against their own agency.
And if you only focus on your wounds, your natural inclination is to wound others. You follow the old line from Ani DiFranco, “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” But what’s the wisdom in that? Tools build things, weapons hurt people. Why would you want to spend your time hurting people rather than building things?
So what should we be building, and what metaphor should guide us?
I think the Egyptian Muslim student I spoke about earlier has a lot to teach us here. In confidently stating what made her proud from her own culture and faith, she implicitly invited others to do the same. Everybody started sharing their strengths.
It reminded me of a potluck. You assume people are contributors — that they have a wonderful dish to bring to the table.
Barriers do exist to people making their contribution: racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, antisemitism. These things need to be called out and defeated. But they do not define the contributors to the potluck.
The whole production requires racial and religious minorities like me to violate the substance of our core identities.
We cannot create the false sense that the barriers to participation are more important than the beauty of people’s cultures.
A good potluck requires us to welcome the distinctive contributions of people’s diverse identities. Potlucks don’t exist if people don’t bring their dishes, or are hindered in bringing them. They are boring if everyone is from the same identity and brings the same thing. When the invitation is right, a diverse community of people bring their best dish.
Potlucks create a space that facilitates inspiring conversations and creative combinations. When someone’s crusty bread just goes perfectly with someone else’s spicy dip.
And they’re fun. Diversity work should be fun.
Diversity work in our institutions could look like this: Rather than people feeling the need to present their wounds, they are invited to make their contribution. Rather than forcing people to read from the invisible script where some are guilty and the others are fragile, we think of the creative combinations and enriching conversations that take place when a genuine diversity of dishes and identities are in the right space together.
Respect. Relate. Cooperate. What if this is how we thought about diversity work in the United States?
You can bring a dish to the American potluck. You can invite other people to join. You can host the event yourself.
You can nudge the nation toward more than it is and closer to what it might be — not a melting pot, not a battlefield, but a potluck. Where everyone is invited. Everyone is valued. Everyone is a contributor. Where our best dishes are made better by other people’s best dishes. Where we invite people to the common table of our collective contributions so the whole nation can feast.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America and author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy.”