“Ignorance more often begets confidence than does knowledge.” - Charles Darwin
What does 9/11 have to do with DEI?
Following the terror attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (NYMTA) implored every New Yorker to report suspicious activities they saw on their network. The NYMTA went so far as to trademark the phrase, “If you see something, say something®” to raise awareness of the signs of terrorism. Today the phrase is even licensed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
But while the “If you see something, say something®” campaign had positive intent, it also came with a dark side. It created unwarranted paranoia, reductive labelling and sweeping generalizations that only served to divide people. In the wake of the tragedy, our Muslim and Sikh brothers and sisters found themselves unfairly discriminated against by fellow citizens who chose the politics of divisiveness and vindication. Sikhs felt the wrath of prejudice because some people couldn’t distinguish between turbans, while Muslims experienced the ignorant by-products of reducing approximately 1.3 billion people to a single label. More than twenty years later, we have normalized those othering stereotypes and the social justice activists have moved to the seemingly noble pursuit of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Yet I can’t help finding that DEI, for all its good intentions, has become a war on individuality. A war with unintended consequences like we saw 20 years ago.
I’ve been pondering these thoughts for some time, and I do wonder if I have a legitimate issue with common DEI training. Am I simply virtue signalling, too? In moments of self doubt I wonder if I am taking a position that goes against the normative diversity narrative merely to stand out. Perhaps it is hubris or a need to demonstrate the intellectual limitations of unquestioned conformity. Whatever the reason, I find myself engaging in this conversation more often recently, but why?
My opinions are informed by my “lived experience,” which, in contemporary DEI parlance, should be enough to validate the truth of my perspective. But I have also been consuming vasts amount of information, perspectives, and insights informed by other people’s lived experiences and philosophies. Among other authors, I have considered the works of Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robyn DiAngelo. I have layered in knowledge on offer by Robyn Maynard, Michelle Alexander and Michael Eric Dyson, and I have balanced it with dissent from Irshad Manji, John McWhorter, Isabel Wilkerson, Randall Kennedy and Andrew Sullivan. Ironically all of it has served to reinforce my appreciation for the quote commonly attributed to Darwin, “Ignorance more often begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Indeed, the more often I discuss this topic, the more commonly I discover that people on both sides of the issue limit their reading selections to one worldview or the other. They rarely read from across the divide, which is required for serious intellectual enquiry and truth-seeking endeavours. One recent example found me particularly shocked. The school board my children attend was hosting an anti-black racism session, so I decided to attend. The speaker, an individual the school board visibly has a great deal of confidence in, spoke at the elementary school where my youngest child attends. The same individual also spoke at the high school my older children attend. Three aspects from the talk stood out to me, all of which felt extremely concerning.
The message was largely divisive; it highlighted many reasons why white members of the audience should feel shame and guilt. It offered a reductive and deterministic justification for any negative experiences of black and brown students, and it discounted any participatory role agency might have played. The speaker also made sure to pay lip service to signal inclusion of indigenous peoples, while saying nothing of substance regarding them. Equally troubling was that the speaker offered no suggestions that could help students bridge divides, find common respect or focus on future forward community-building initiatives. Call me an extreme pragmatist, but I found myself bitting my lips throughout the talk as I saw nothing in that speech that would practically help us make our society better.
More concerning still, the speaker didn’t take questions from parents or students. The customary Q&A session was non-existent. The issues being discussed, it was being signalled, were not to be questioned, nor were they to be critically engaged with. We should instead accept them as sacrosanct. The speaker went so far as to imply that there were only two options available: people could either admit they hold racist attitudes or they should accept the fact that they are indeed racists because of their failure to recognize their failings. These were apparently the only two options on offer, and they both left me unsatisfied. In my work, I take the time to unpack the complexity of our human nature, and the speaker’s explanations did not, in any way, do justice to the nuances and intricacies of our world.
The most glaring aspect of the presentation was the obvious one-sidedness. While the speaker frequently cited Kendi and DiAngelo, when pressed by parents about other scholars of colour like Manji, McWhorter, or Thomas Sowell, he promptly dismissed them, stating that he hated those books and they weren’t worth reading. It turns out that our school board endorses speakers who find comfort in their self-affirming echo chambers, refuse to face legitimate disagreements even through civil discourse, and fails to answer basic requirements of intellectual rigour. The speaker sponsored by the school board was, in effect, only that—a speaker. An ideologically driven sophist who paid lip service to vague, undefined notions of diversity, equity and inclusion but who did not bring anything valuable to the table.
At the end of the sessions, a few parents discussed how the talk ignored invaluable counter-arguments that are easily discoverable and readily accessible in bestselling books like Don’t Label Me. In it, Irshad Manji argued that those who advocate for diversity too often end up creating conformity in part due to their fixation on labeling. Labels, Manji maintains, drain diversity of its unifying potential. Similarly, John McWhorter, in Woke Racism, posits that much of the anti-racism ideology infantilizes black and brown people. It considers them as fragile and incapable of self-determination because it shows white people are their kryptonite. These two books among many others, despite being written by serious scholars of colour, failed to meet the speaker’s ideological requirements. This, in today’s climate, was good enough ground for dismissal. It didn’t matter that the talk was about the fact that marginalization of any voice of a person of colour is tantamount to racism.
While the talk itself may have been disappointing, I did find a silver lining in the sky. Parents, who had been attentive to the talk, drew attention to the one-sided presentation, hardly the intellectual rigour our schools should be modelling if we hope to develop critical thinking in our children. Many parents did not buy into the ideological dogma brought by the speaker and pushed back on these notions they deemed unhelpful. However, some of them were happy to go along with the speaker’s agenda. A parent who seemed particularly pleased about the speaker and his remarks interjected against the critics with an astounding comment—that critical thinking and objective truth are examples of white supremacy and products of white hegemony. This position, surprisingly, is supported by the anti-racism movement and literature.
So why engage more nowadays? Back in mid 2010s, when a small but vocal group of DEI / social justice activists started spreading a more divisive message, most moderate people of colour thought it was a phase that would pass. The extremes would get tempered and the pendulum would return to the middle allowing for sensible discourse to return. We were wrong, as it turns out, and the “new normal” is now ubiquitous from educational institutions to the corporate sector. As a person of colour, I find myself unimpressed by people who purport to speak for me and for all people who look like me, as if we were one monolithic group who all think, feel and opine the same way.
Since I attended the event because of my kids, I couldn’t help but ask myself this important and terrifying question. My child, who is half brown and half white, is he half oppressor and half oppressed? Does his white privilege overshadow his brown historical subjugation? Or does his brown historical subjugation overshadows his white privilege? And what about his mother? Is she inherently evil, a white devil? Am I, his father, inherently marginalized? What if I don’t feel this way (even though, back in 1990s, I was called a “paki sand nigger,” told to go back to “where I came from,” and had a Tim Hortons coffee thrown at me)? More importantly, how do I, as a father, help my child make sense of this world?
When we look at where DEI has taken us, it’s easy to see that we’ve returned to the familiar immediate post 9/11 social attitude. Racism is a real problem, and we have a right to be angry. But if, by trying to right the historical wrongs, we cause paranoia and divisiveness, are we actually accomplishing something? The policy for me has always been simple. If you see something, say something. And this is true for either type of divisiveness. If you see racism, say something. If you see divisiveness disguised as DEI, say something. And if you see someone lost in the divisive jargon of inclusivity, remind them of our common humanity.
If we ever hope to end racism and be a truly inclusive society, we need respect for our common humanity—even when we disagree. Respect for diversity of thought and opinion—even if our perspectives vary. Respect for personhood—that beautifully complex state of being that is so hard to reduce to a single label. And respect for community and for each other—with all the perfectly natural imperfections of our human experience. Because individuality still matters; divisiveness and determinism fails to celebrate the rich diversity that is the human condition.