Tap Dancing for Pennies (What I Won’t Do). October 14, 2020. 10:48PM.
“So… I got the job offer for the Diversity and Equity position today,” he says to me. I start to congratulate him. “There’s just one thing.”
“What’s the thing?” I pause.
“I have to continue to work my full-time job AND the new diversity position for a total of two full-time jobs. I’ll still be paid the same rate.”
“Or?” I ask.
He replies, “Or I have to take a $15,000 pay cut to do the diversity job.”
“Tianna, the job was advertised as one full-time position. The two remaining finalists were told that they would do the diversity position as the only full-time job.”
The other two finalists? White men.
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion companies were busy? Is that why they hired my Black friend who had little to no experience in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion?
I wish I was naïve enough to say I didn’t recognize this feeling deep in my gut.
George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 created a wave of #ACTIVISM and people became #WOKE. America experienced waves of months of protests as the Black Lives Matter Movement continued to gain popularity and support from around the world. Suddenly, Black Owned Bookstores were overwhelmed with book orders. White people held book clubs to read anti-racism work by Black authors and/ or the book White Fragility. The majority of this was genuine, right?
Companies were now #BLACKLIVESMATTER (BLM) and posted Black Squares on social media. The hashtag #BLM replaced Twitter bios. On dating apps like Hinge and Tinder, even the white guys put #BLM in their bios. If I liked their profile by swiping right, we still never matched.
“WE BELIEVEEEEEEEEEEEE THAT BLACK LIVES MATTER!” screamed an email by Dunkin Donuts. I asked myself how Dunkin Donuts got my email address.
“At our company, we are committed to diversity! We must say that #BLACK LIVES MATTER!”
Okay… Subway. This was getting out of hand.
The same companies that were “Black Lives Matter” on company websites were “White Lives Matter” on the Board of Directors page. White Lives Matter in upper management. White Lives Matter in leadership. White Lives Matter in promotion. White Lives Matter in hiring practices. White Lives Matter in advertising. White Lives Matter in retention. White Lives Matter in the wage gap.
Diversity Is So Important funded fellowship programs for people of color.
No one realized what was going on?
Oh, but when it came to investment, we witnessed a shift. A friend called this “Reparation Tears” TM as company after company donated thousands of dollars to social justice organizations owned by people of color. It wasn’t like these organizations couldn’t use continued support, but did companies truly understand what was behind their contribution?
On a Zoom call the Monday morning after the murder of George Floyd, my friend’s coworkers talked about their weekends with joy. One went fishing, others went hiking. Few knew what happened in Minneapolis besides the “devastating property damage.”
When my friend mentioned George Floyd in tears, it went silent. The company backpedaled. The solution? A diversity task force within a task force within a committee. Oh, and here’s $100,000 for the NAACP.
I watched my friend cry out of frustration in his living room.
In July, my high school hosted a Zoom call for former Black students to voice concerns of our experiences. Black alumnus from 1999- 2019 shared collective trauma and identical stories of racism, harassment, bullying, and blatant discrimination. The moderator discussed a plan for a Black Alumni Mentoring program. And I know the world is on fire, but here we are almost four months later with no mention of said plan or an email update.
Did anyone else realize how traumatizing this was?
If these same companies, universities, schools, and organizations actually invested in Black Lives, invested in people of color, then what? Then Dunkin Donuts and everyone else wouldn’t send me unsolicited emails.
I know how important Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) work is. I know strategy, training, and implementation could make a world of difference in companies. By no means am I advocating against it. What I was seeing was something else bubbling under the surface.
It came in waves in the months after I told my story.
“Hi Tianna!” I checked the email and had no idea who it was. “I would love to pick your brain on your experiences at the State Department. Would a Zoom call work? Let me know your availability.”
I was confused. You could read my first-person narrative I wrote for POLITICO. My op-ed in LA Times. The feature in New York Times. You could listen to my voice shake during an interview with The World and hear exhaustion in my voice on NPR. I was quoted on ABC News, Business Insider, CNN, etc. Hell, you could even read the posts on my blog.
I didn’t respond. I wondered why someone would write me with a request to rehash trauma. I shared collective trauma with so many others, but that was different. They wanted to see who they could speak to, which became a community storytelling project, a return email on my behalf detailing who could hopefully do something about their experience. Additionally, I had a few college students who were people of color reach out via email. Their dream was to be a foreign service officer and I didn’t know what to say. Instead, I connected them to former colleagues that still work at the State Department. They could explain better. I couldn’t.
I wish I could name it at the time. What stood out to me the most was that I was left traumatized by those asking for Just! A! Little! Bit! More! Trauma! TM The inquiries, emails detailing a twisted desire to revel in my trauma, relive, and explain was baffling when a simple Google search would do the trick.
It made my shoulders tense. I deleted the email app. It felt like a majority white audience was asking me to perform, a trauma tap dance for pennies. At the end, they threw me loose change. What I wanted was more significant, tangibles like accountability and systemic change.
My inbox was overflowing.
“Tianna, I want your opinion on something. It seems that Mike Pence is extremely scared of Kamala Harris. Can you tell me why? As a white man, I truly want to know. It seems as if people are scared of you too! Why is that?”
In the end, I realized that this was another display of performative activism. And here I was under a new gaze asked to explain to white people who hadn’t done the work to ask me questions to begin with.
I figured Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion companies were busy. The website of a DEI company said- “Awaken is currently at full capacity- Please expect delays in our response! Thank you for your continued support.”
I thought about how important the work was, but also how exhausted DEI companies had to be.
In mid- August, the emails pivoted into a new direction.
“Hi Tianna! Our company is working on a diversity plan. We would love to speak to you to hear your invaluable perspective! What is your availability?”
I didn’t work in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion? I actually had zero experience in the field. I was a Black woman with lived experience. I struggled with this internally- did this make me qualified like those who studied the field and had years of experience? Why was I contacted over them?
I soon found out. For the companies wanting to reference my lived experience and learn how I navigated living in America as a Black woman, I responded with my consulting fee.
The least a million-dollar company or organization could do was respect me. I did not define my worth by money and I still had bills to pay. For me, compensation was respect. It was tangibles for your perspective and experience. Respect for labor, process, and creation of a strategy. It helped me pay for my internet as I researched, wrote blog posts and op-eds, scheduled calls, and talked to others about systemic change. Compensation was respect.
Compensation was value for my time.
Long gone were the days of unpaid internships. I couldn’t afford it. Long gone were the days of free labor and twice as much effort for one paycheck. Why did companies suggest this was my problem to deal with?
It was insulting. If a company truly wanted to improve their organization then they would pay for the labor, time, and materials. If my perspective was truly invaluable to you, why would you not pay me? If companies were truly invested in improving Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion at their companies, then why do they fail to make a good faith effort?
For these companies, it was too much work. It was difficult. It would require intention. Leadership would struggle to respond when a DEI consultant asked a simple question like why is the demographic of your technology company 85% White Males? Or why does the job description brag “Voted Best Workplace for Dads!” and “Voted Best Workplace for Working Moms!”
Did Dads not work?
“We can’t find people of color to work here, Tianna,” my boss told me. I was the only Black woman working for the company of 200 employees in Durham, NC. Durham is home to a Historically Black University (HBCU) and has an African American population of almost 40%.
The company didn’t want to. That’s why.
It was too difficult to ask why your progressive organization only hires Black women for Human Resources positions and offers absolutely no opportunities for growth. Why does your website boast a “company culture” full of things that are coded language for white people?
Being anti-racist is a lifetime process of continuous effort and hard work. Companies knew performative activism was easier and cost-effective. Companies decorated with a rainbow flag during Pride Month in June and tore that rainbow flag down at 5:01PM on June 30.
For months I struggled with this performative action until I watched a Toni Morrison interview that gave me strength. “Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche.”
“If I take your race away and there you are all strung out. And all you got is your little self. And what is that?”
Morrison continued, “What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart? You still like yourself?”
“Part of it is yes- the victim. How terrible it’s been for Black people. I’m not a victim. I refuse to be one.”
And I wanted to know, for those people in charge-
Who is the largest demographic at your organization? Do they look like you?
What is it about your organization that hires a Black person for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, requires them to do twice the amount of full-time work, or propositions a significant pay cut?
What is it about your organization that hires a Black person for a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion position and gives them absolutely no vision, plan, or support within your organization?
Where was your organization in terms of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion before May 25, 2020?
When will the solution not require rushing people of color into organizations for integration in order to solve problems that majority white companies created and were not slightly interested in addressing until a Black man was murdered in the street?
Why is the solution to not pay people of color tasked with improving your organization?
Why does your organization not consider Black and Brown people as employees, but those who only work in Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion?
Companies were just flat out lazy. What I wanted was for them to fix their problem.
Morrison continued, “If you’re only tall because somebody is on their knees then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking what they should do about it. Take me out of it.”
“Then give white people some free advice?” The white moderator asked.
“It’s all in my books,” Morrison said with a smirk.
I knew the feeling too well. And quite frankly what I won’t do is tap dance for pennies.