Maya Sheth/MiC

I aptly dubbed last fall, my first in-person semester as a University of Michigan transfer student, the semester of learning and unlearning. How do I operate living on my own? What notions do I leave behind in my metro Detroit suburb? Which ideals and values are significant to me, and to what degree?

I unlearned the streets of my childhood hometown. I learned the ins and outs of my little corner on Forest Avenue. Some may argue I unlearned good driving by walking everywhere (I‘d argue against that claim), and some may (correctly) say that I learned the perfect method of defrosting my mom’s food. Beyond getting to know myself and my campus more, I’ve navigated critically unlearning my previous indifference to problematic norms of wokeness — namely current corporate diversity initiatives. Before transferring to the Ross School of Business, I had nothing to do with the sphere of business, so I just pointed and laughed at its disingenuous social awareness from a distance. But once my immersion into the business sphere truly began within my first couple classes of the previous semester at Ross, a disruptive seed was planted into my mind that watered and watered into a fully bloomed animosity, growing from distinct phases of being bemused to irked, to ultimately disillusioned. The tipping point was when a shirt was handed to me in the basement of, ironically, the Trotter Multicultural Center emblazoned with big, bold, maize text that read “I AM DEI.” What’s free is free, so I took the shirt; it’s since become a comfy bedtime staple. I wore it once when my friend was over, and with a mortified stare, she asked, “You’re never going to wear that in public, right?”

She was right. I knew I never would— the words “I AM DEI” immediately rang tone-deaf in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate. Tokenizing? Hasty? Grandiose? Performative? The magnitude of my discomfort at the shirt couldn’t be summarized in a few words, but served as a microcosm of my irritation throughout the semester at being inundated with lingo, jargon and pretty-little-nothings about the overused yet undermined phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” always devoid of any real action to address what consistently has perpetuated racist oppression: global hypercapitalism.

It’s undeniable that an education in business would showcase some pitfalls of the modern synthesis of business and wokeness. During the fall semester of my junior year at Ross, students take the highest concentration of required courses in what’s dubbed the Ross Integrative Semester, or RIS. Each year, there are several preselected RIS themes centered on creating business solutions with positive impact, and this fall’s themes were inclusive learning; transparent and inclusive workspaces; and support for physical and mental wellness. Immediately within the first couple weeks of class, there was no question that attempts at an image of social consciousness were sprinkled throughout most, if not all, of my courses — and while they may possibly have been well-intentioned, were ultimately rendered feeble and insufficient. Common terminology for assignments included phrasing like: “investigate a socially-conscious venture,” “discuss the triple bottom line” and “create a business plan that addresses inclusivity and transparency.” At face value, it seems as though the Ross community is a pioneer of “positive business” — the often discussed, yet infrequently realized utilization of business principles and practices to create solutions mitigating societal ills and promoting the greater good. Delving a little deeper though, this facade is easily broken by Ross’s lack of any tangible commitment to racial equity. Ross, for example, is one of the few schools in the University that doesn’t require a Race & Ethnicity course. Instead, what we do have is a single class period in a required Management & Organization course devoted to (slightly, kinda, not really) discussing Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary “13th.” The film touches on a wide breadth of issues related to the U.S.’s historical racism and oppression of the Black community through the prison system, and how it’s perpetuated by the active role of business interests within the prison-industrial complex. Thus, “13th” can help act as a springboard for a genuine discussion, but our conversation on its content was whittled down to 10 minutes of one class period. This brief discussion, in my experience, largely consisted of participation-point comments like “I had no idea the system was this bad!” and “it’s just so shocking,” centering their harrowed regret at past ignorance instead of truly unpacking the role that our goals as business students play in societal issues the film presents. We quickly touched on the role of business in the prison-industrial complex for a couple minutes, and this seemed to pass as adequate anti-racism learning to administrators, faculty and some students.

Additionally, to top off our “education” in this sphere, my peers and I are required to participate in the “Identity and Diversity in Organizations” degree requirement: a hodgepodge combination of a virtual seminar here, an out-of-the-blue reflection paper there, from sophomore to senior year with one focused “milestone” of identity, diversity, or organizations per year. “Participate” is honestly a loose term in this case, as students are permitted to sit with their cameras and microphones off on Zoom for the entirety of the discussion. Moreover, instead of designating a professor for this lesson — that’s meant to stand in for the Race & Ethnicity credit that several other U-M schools have — peer instructors are utilized, evidently creating a lack of legitimacy during each session despite the genuine efforts of peer instructors. All in all, it has become increasingly clear to me that Ross is tiptoeing around the actual implementation of an education that prioritizes anti-racism and the uplifting of intersectional perspectives, choosing instead to prioritize comfort in the status quo with discussions that drone on about diversity and inclusion but never equity. It seems that, as a microcosm of the larger DEI “movement,” Ross misses the mark of what the actual pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion should be.

Another example of this “close, but not too close” approach took place in mid-September. This past semester, Ross administration had decided to integrate a “discussion” of Ben & Jerry’s statement on Palestine into the syllabus of one of our mandatory courses during RIS. Long story short, that fever dream-like moment consisted of tone-deaf suggestions — “Why don’t they just all sit at a table and hash it out?” — and irrevocably concerning statements such as “the BBA Council’s email over the summer in solidarity with Palestine should’ve recognized their audience; although there are Muslim students in this school, they’re still a minority.” Not only did this declaration imply that the feelings of Muslim students should not be prioritized, but it incorrectly lumped together Muslim and Palestinian identities, ignoring the existence of Palestinian Christians, among other communities. Most inappropriately, mere acknowledgement of the inherent humanity of the Palestinian people was thrown away as students chose to discuss the optics of speaking out on humanitarian causes instead. I was overwhelmed in a way I hadn’t expected — bathroom, breathe in, breathe out, brush away tears, breathe in, breathe out, back to class. I couldn’t stop thinking of my Palestinian friends and the horror that they’d have felt in witnessing this discussion of “communication strategy” on an occupation that had irreparably disrupted their lives and the lives of generations before them. Yet interestingly, the minute that there was any rift in our conversation, we were immediately told to move on. I was confused — what was the point of bringing up a contentious topic, and then pulling the rug out from under our feet as soon as deliberation began to take place? We can talk about the framing of a statement on Palestine and the effects it had on the company, but we can’t talk about the actual occupation of Palestine that the statement itself condemns and speaks out against? We can teeter around the lines of discussing oppression, but when conversations immediately extend beyond face-value pleasantries and carefully worded participation-point platitudes, that “inclusivity of important topics” is brought to a halt. 

This brings me to the notion of prioritizing white comfort in DEI. It’s undeniable that these discussions or speeches or workshops operate from a point of centrality assuming a white audience, with an unquestioned acceptance of capitalism. Individuals from marginalized communities are expected to provide context, explain a system and contextualize their experiences to an audience that is assumed to know little about the inequities and injustices marginalized communities face. One- to two-hour conversations occur, and there is no expectation for further self-education afterwards — just hear stories and leave. As a result, the burden of storytelling is already unbalanced. People of Color often feel the need to speak on behalf of their communities as representation is sparse, resulting not only in the sheer pressure of presenting your identity in the most palatable way, but also not being able to always speak accurately about experiences given their possible concurrence with stereotypes. Moreover, current DEI seems to thrive on vague, detached jargon with phrases like “experience,” “your truth,” “my truth” and “perspective,” decentering any acknowledgements of systematic injustice and the indisputable role neoliberal capitalism plays in it. A reckoning with the consistently symbiotic relationship between capitalism and racism is currently absent but necessary: slavery, which many scholars agree was the foundation of globalized industrial capitalism, was predicated on obtaining the cheapest possible labor for slaveowners, and even today — as hastily touched on in my aforementioned class — the gaping hole in the 13th amendment of “except by punishment” perpetuates a modern-day form of slavery: the high prison-labor population of mostly Black and Brown people for some of today’s most established companies.  

The reality is that race is part of a system of oppression that surrounds us all. Instead of acknowledging and studying the interlocking relationship between racism, capitalism and patriarchal standards to begin to effectively dismantle them, we whittle our language down to empty jargon like “identity” and “differing perspectives” because when language is more upfront, reactions are mixed at best. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” protagonist Ifemelu, a Nigerian blogger and critic of race relations in America, is invited to give a DEI speech at a small company based in Ohio. Her opening line is “The first step to honest communication about race is that you cannot equate all racisms.” Ifemelu is met with “frozen” faces and an angry email calling her talk “BALONEY” — consequently, she’s not invited back. From then on, she learns to adjust the tone of her talks with friendly, inoffensive, smiling statements like “America has made great progress for which we should be very proud.” Here, honesty regarding racism in the U.S. is characterized as audacious due to sheer white fragility, and although these are scenes from a novel, they ring true as events that can easily take place in the real world. Overall, we must ask ourselves what the true character of DEI is. Is it something that genuinely begets progress, or is it an attempt at a bandage, quick-fix solution for systemic racism, like slapping a Band-Aid on a burst pipe? Is DEI a catalyst for change or just another lagging symptom of superficial woke culture that those in power are pushing to render face-value and ineffective? 

I come bearing no surefire solutions, but I do know that we can start inching towards actual diversity, tangible equity and genuine inclusion by first addressing the roots of oppression and power imbalances. In DEI conversations, the stories People of Color share about experiencing racism should not have to share space with self-centering apologies and even justifications for past racism due to the fact that “you’re from a small town.” Moreover, individual experiences should be taken as that — solely individual — rather than one-and-done explanations of historical oppression. Some may think that current efforts can’t hurt, but the reality is that many current DEI efforts have continuously proven ineffective at best, and potentially harmful at worst, serving to make people complacent under the impression that efforts are being made. For example, implicit bias training has shown to be inconsequential in several studies, and interestingly enough, a study by Cornell’s Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion unearthed that the paradox of stereotype awareness is that it actually tends to perpetuate said stereotypes. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be cognizant of our internal biases, but rather our unlearning must be thorough in framing the proper context and history of typecasting marginalized communities. As Charlice Hurst writes in “The Stanford Social Innovation Review,” placing “racism in the individual rather than the system … fails to communicate that the survival of systemic racism does not depend only on individual attitudes.” Similar to most ideals in this country, the current notion of DEI heightens the facade that everything occurs on an individual level, and its danger lies in its characterization as a transformative, ground-breaking, tangible solution to racism. Oftentimes, that characterization can come from sheer hypocrisy: how can Goldman Sachs speak to diversity and inclusion (fittingly, not even attempting to claim equity) when it quite literally targeted the Black community for high-interest subprime mortgages in the 2008 housing crash? There always seems to be something missing: a story left without context, an example of systemic pitfalls without naming the system, policy or interests that perpetuated that outcome. As a result of that vagueness, DEI falls into and perpetuates the classic “snowflake” image that conservatives hold with the American left, which may speak to the overall cognitive dissonance of neoliberalism: maintaining space for the fallacy of the “economically conservative, socially liberal.” The awkward middle ground is doubly harmful, as conservatives who already view DEI with disdain (maybe for different reasons) look at current DEI discussions devoid of addressing the root causes of inequity and injustice as simply complaining about nothing. And in that respect, they may have a point: without addressing the real roots of racist oppression in DEI subject matter that businesses profit from, “woke” corporations and institutions are nothing but pots calling the kettle black. 

From personal experience, I myself have found DEI events (and related clothing merchandise) to be, for lack of a better word, corny. In my opinion, one can achieve a happy medium of genuinely educating themselves by combining listening to the perspectives of others with the active pursuit of knowledge. Discussing stories about how our lunchbox smelled different in elementary school is always always fun, but it can only get us so far. Lack of justice and equity in our society has been deeply entrenched for generations, and one speaker sharing their experiences of having their name wrongfully mispronounced in a Ted Talk-esque venue cannot reverse that stronghold. These facets of learning can’t necessarily occur overnight, but the process can begin by mere acknowledgement, at least. 

Ultimately, the Ross School of Business is a microcosm of a larger corporate system that reinvents itself every so often in conjunction with the ebbs and flow of societal norms. As awareness of social issues and injustices becomes more prevalent in our society, it’s evident that corporations can’t operate business as usual — they know they must integrate perfunctory marketing to effectively virtue signal. As the act becomes more convincing, we can either ingest it without question, or not only expect better but change our expectations. There lies a paradox in corporations claiming to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in a capitalist industry that was built, and continues to thrive, on actively perpetuating inequity. Oftentimes, that paradox is difficult to unearth given corporations’ active efforts to costume as changemakers, but other times, it is evidenced by language and terminology that equates your ‘racially anxious’ truth with my ‘actively-affected-by-racism’ truth. 

MiC Managing Editor Eliya Imtiaz can be contacted at eliyai@umich.edu