Column: The difficulties of diversity outreach

Striving for diversity is great, but often challenging in practice.

Kate McCarthy

How often is ‘diversity’ used as a catch-all, generic concept — a loosely-defined gold star chased by groups of all kinds? College campuses, clubs, workplaces, improv teams — you name it, they’re all chasing diversity.

However, the actual pursuit of diversity can be tricky and often forced or uncomfortable to tackle.

This past week, a friend described to me their experience rallying together a group of people to appear on camera for a diversity campaign video. The video was quite literally about inclusivity and diversity, but the actual task of assembling a team that could adequately convey that message felt somewhat forced.

For my friend, it meant popping into various student groups, where they felt out of place or intrusive. Ironically though, the infringement was aimed at creating a video that would go promote a message of respect and interest for student groups of all kinds. The act of mashing together a platter of diversity is noble in theory but can often be tokenistic at worst.

This friend and I went on to talk about the attempts to diversify a humor magazine we both founded on campus. Sometime after initially forming, we all realized that the group had obliviously cultivated a much rarified voice and perspective: all our writers were racially and socio-economically similar, and then of course there was the ever-present comedy gender skew.

So I became head of diversity outreach and went full force — sending out emails and coordinating to speak with various campus groups. The attempts were received somewhat tepidly, which is understandable. It makes sense to be skeptical when a group comes to you with the expressed purpose of diversifying their own work even if it’s with the best intentions and honesty. At our magazine, we might have been genuinely trying to create a platform and open space for new and unrepresented voices, but the “genuine” factor is key. Otherwise, it feels like tokenizing, especially if there’s no follow-through. It can come off as fake, a one-off attempt to get that stamp of diversity approval.

Again, it might be with the best intentions, but it’s not alright to make people feel like pawns.

Luckily, there’s a solution. It can be as simple as starting out diverse and checking yourselves constantly to make sure that whatever you’re doing is a cool collage of lots of experiences and backgrounds — not because it’s good for the old resume, but because it’s more true to life and interesting too. And that’s way simpler than trying to frantically reverse-engineer a group’s demographics through half-baked diversity outreach that is often rightfully met with suspicion and weariness.

It’s the thought that counts, but there’s certainly a way to go about diversifying with finesse and earnestness — making space at the table available for everyone.