- Understand the context and history of DEI and the difference between DEI and EDI
- Understand the complexity of how identity categories, privilege and perception, as well as initiatives like DEI and EDI function within academia
- Understand ways you can adapt your teaching to be student affirming and culturally responsive
DEI vs. EDI
As an educator and professional, you most likely have already encountered conversations and initiatives focused around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in your institutions and workplaces. These efforts cover a wide spectrum of activities and principles intended to acknowledge the sociological, political, legal and economic forces that shape and organize our world according to power and privilege. DEI functions from the premise that everyone belongs and the world is better because of so many different people and ways of being, but recognizing that a multitude of identities and practices are often overlooked, suppressed or excluded according to the needs and objectives of the dominant structures in society. These dominant structures can be individuals, ruling bodies, and/or institutions employing a variety of means to ensure that their beliefs, practices, and vision become and remain the accepted norm. Narratives, policies and practices are used to justify and maintain the standards, as well as reassert the power of those establishing such norms. While many people may disagree with certain aspects or specific policies, dissent is generally discouraged and often severely penalized.
For example, the term “cis” has been primarily used in reference to gender identity and norms. The concept brings needed attention to the dominant social norms and expectations in a society. A cis-gendered person is one who fits the standard, and can be male or female, man or woman-identified, as long as their gender identity maintains the one they were assigned at birth. Since we live in an overwhelmingly binary society based on only two primary gender categories (male/masculine and female/feminine) positioned as oppositional, biologically and often religiously and/or morally correct, anyone who identifies outside of those binaries, particularly transgender, transexual and intersex individuals, are considered abnormal and marginalized. Cis-gender means that a person is perceived to be part of the dominant, most acceptable gender identities and therefore has the privilege of not only identifying as part of that group, but also being perceived as such. While women have been and are historically oppressed because of their gender, they receive privileges that a transgender woman would not and are considered acceptable and even legally protected in ways that transgender women and men are not.
Those who are closest to and uphold the norms receive privileges that extend beyond social acceptance and may include economic, legal, and/or political advantages and protections. Those who adhere to and maintain the norms most vigorously perceive themselves as the most rational, morally correct, civically upstanding and powerful because they share in the same beliefs and practices as the majority, and specifically, the dominant structures or forces. These people also tend to spread their beliefs and attempt to convince those who behave or think differently that they are at least wrong and misinformed. Extremists can even go as far as to publicly condemn or physically assault those who diverge from the norm. Marginalization occurs for each group and individual that exists apart from the norm. The further the person is from the norm, the more marginalization they experience socially and politically which usually also carries economic repercussions as well.
Given the vast diversity of populations, why is it that certain groups and beliefs are the most highly valued and accepted, while others are disrespected and even criminalized? Why do institutions, neighborhoods, and nations look and function the way they do? Even within a group perceived to be largely homogeneous such as a specific ethnic group of a certain age and gender in a very localized region, there will be significant and innumerable differences in physicality, psychology, learning style, means of expression. And yet everyone in the group will have been socialized to behave according to that region’s policies and ways of being, a status quo largely determined by powers far outside of their control and perhaps centuries before they were born. These same standards will shift as the group and location shifts, depending upon the context and geography, sometimes minute to minute, all over the world.
How is it different in the classroom? All groups, no matter how large or small, are composed of individuals with multiple identities and ways of being. The most widely recognized sociological identity categories are: race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, religion, physical ability, appearance, socioeconomic class, nationality, and legal status. How many of these identities are easily seen? And how much of what is “easily seen” is based on our personal perceptions and bias towards or against a person, place, idea, or thing? How much of this is based on how, where, and when we were raised, as well as the experiences we’ve had along the way that inform and shape us? How much is this based on our over reliance on the physical sense of vision itself? What are we not seeing, hearing, feeling, recognizing or understanding?
Identity categories are definitely not exhaustive and often subsume what an individual considers most significant about themself. For example, a brown-skinned student enters your classroom. They are dressed in jeans and a t-shirt with sneakers and earrings. They have braids in a bun and short nails with glitter nail polish. As you overhear them talking with another student who appears to be white, they speak in a mix of Spanish and English. When they introduce themselves to the class, they ask to be called “Jay” and don’t clarify their pronouns.
Who did you see in your mind? A young woman or man? A trans person? Based on that, did you make additional assumptions about their sexuality? Where did you think they came from when you heard their languages? And what about the “student who appears to be white” with whom they were speaking? Does the fact that they also speak Spanish shift your expectations and more importantly, comfort level with and affinity towards each of these students? What if they were wearing a hijab, had dredlocs, used a cane, or were freestyling a rhyme with their classmate?
DEI recognizes and values the identities of all individuals in this scenario, and argues that the classroom, boardroom, and any other room benefits tremendously from the interesting differences between people in groups because there’s a greater variety of strengths, interests, perspectives and knowledge to share. DEI recognizes that people have biases and prejudices that can and should be examined in order to expand individual’s ability to work and communicate well with others. DEI also addresses the re-balancing of power and resources that will naturally occur by being more considerate towards all people and ensuring that as many different voices, styles, and ideas as possible are in the mix. DEI asks for a close (and sustained) read of the way groups, institutions and people function and look, and to acknowledge that the hierarchy and practices in place are by choice and design, not simply because of natural law or rationality and objectivity.
DEI work has a corporate history tied to affirmative action policies of the late 20th century and the lack of diversity in representation, equity in compensation and power, and inclusivity in the workplace culture and environment. While this has led to more widespread acceptance and normalization of these efforts, it’s also often led to a great deal of tension as institutions are reluctantly and suddenly forced to contend with their demographics, culture and history. Just like this country struggles to address its complicated and overwhelmingly violent history of invasion, genocide, enslavement and oppression of women and minorities, institutions struggle with examining their power structures, policies and culture. Usually, the norms and practices have been in place for a long time and are very difficult to change because people are unwilling to acknowledge the depth and persistence of the exclusionary practices, as well as how they’ve benefitted from the system in place. Denial is common, as are phrases like, “I never noticed…” or “I’m not like that personally, but that’s just how it is here” or “that person’s not a good fit.”
Institutionally, it is not until a major complaint is lodged, lawsuit filed, or policy change occurs with a shifting administration, state or federal law that major efforts are taken to address the lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. Think of the Starbucks response to racial profiling by their employees, or the numerous companies and institutions that brought in DEI consultants and started initiatives after the murder of George Floyd, resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and international protests in 2020. Was Starbucks’ half-day of company-wide training actually sufficient to address the intertwined and pervasive forms of oppression taking place within the thousands of stores and on the corporate level? Why isn’t ongoing diversity education required for all of their employees? How often has it been part of your training and professional development? Has it been required or simply a suggestion?
Unfortunately, the corporatization of DEI efforts has placed the focus on the economic benefits of diversity, rather than shifting the inherent beliefs about who and what is valuable and belongs. Without examining the fundamental beliefs, DEI efforts are often poorly funded, highly resisted by those with the greatest power, and watered down in attempts not to offend people. As the interest is predominantly linked to political events and social trends, the tide can change swiftly and turn against the individuals and groups engaged in this work who are often silenced or pushed to leave the organization with few major changes having been enacted. And thus the status quo remains.
DEI is a trickle-down theory of social change that focuses on diversity and representation to create equity. Shifting the position of equity to the forefront places the focus on directly addressing the historical injustices and power imbalances that people from specific identity groups have experienced and continue to experience. In a historically capitalist, white male-driven, Christian and heterosexual society, EDI takes DEI work a step further by pushing for action beyond acknowledgement of injustice and inequitable distribution of power, resources and opportunity. Equity is about honest acknowledgement of individuals and the context they’re in, as well as the limitations they face and benefits they may receive based on their identities and taking substantive action to redress the injustice and create conditions that can eventually lead to equality by ensuring those who’ve been impacted the most receive the most.
Visit the University of Michigan’s Social Identity Wheel Overview and Activity. Read the overview, download and complete the Social Identity Wheel. We encourage you to incorporate this activity in your course design and you may also want to use the Personal Identity Wheel as an icebreaker or get-to-know-you activity in the beginning of the semester to help students feel more comfortable with sharing such personal information with one another.