The Year in “Diversity Fatigue”

Hua Hsu, New Yorker, December 26, 2017

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In the late nineties, people running corporations and overseeing newsrooms began complaining of an affliction called “diversity fatigue.” While many of these institutions broadly supported efforts to create a more diverse American workforce, actually doing that, by recruiting and nurturing minority talent, was hard, often exhausting, work. “Diversity fatigue” described the stress that managers felt when tasked with realizing these goals. Over time, the term drifted from its workplace roots and took on a wider, more everyday meaning. Soon, everyone was free to feel tired of diversity. In 2006, the writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explained that it often felt like “walking on eggshells” to worry so much about offending those around them. They wondered if part of the problem wasn’t that diversity had become such a compulsory feature of American life, at least in their liberal circles. “People are willing to be tolerant,” they wrote, “but past a certain point it feels like being ordered to eat the peas.”

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Diversity is increasingly the scapegoat when something old and reliable begins to falter. This year, the supposed overemphasis on diversity was invoked to explain everything from ESPN’s falling ratings to the middling quality of U.S. soccer, from flagging enthusiasm for the Star Wars universe to a dip in comic-book sales. (A recent MarketWatch piece wondered if the increasingly diverse world of Marvel superheroes—which included “Afro-Latino Spider-Man, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, a female Thor, a gay Iceman, a Korean Hulk, an African-American female lead in Iron Man, and a lesbian Latina America Chavez”—had alienated “traditional” fans.) Perhaps, some suggested, we simply need to disrupt our conventional views on diversity. This spring, the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke of the need for “ideological diversity,” particularly among his closest advisers. He was defending the presence of the Trump adviser Peter Thiel on Facebook’s board, and sidestepping criticisms of the minuscule size of his company’s black workforce. But Zuckerberg was also trying to spin diversity in a way that could make a wider swath of Americans feel included—except, perhaps, those who were once central to the diversity debates. The Times invoked a similar principle—a “diversity of views”—when they were criticized for publishing the dubious claims of a recently hired conservative Op-Ed columnist.

Diversity has become a worn and misapplied term partly as a result of its messy origins. The term as we use it today first emerged in 1978, as part of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in University of California v. Bakke. The court struck down quotas but upheld affirmative action, allowing an applicant’s race to factor into college-admissions policies. It was a divisive case, which resulted in a total of six opinions. The judgment of the Court was written by Justice Lewis Powell, who argued that the state had an interest in maintaining a “diverse student body.” Powell’s rationale differed slightly from the rest of the majority, who predicated their support for affirmative action on an acknowledgment of America’s legacies of discrimination and inequality. From the very beginning, then, there was something vague and ahistorical about diversity, particularly in the context of higher education. Rather than a means of historical redress, it was meant to be useful.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that diversity’s most enthusiastic proselytizers are in the world of business. {snip}

It was strange to read “The Diversity Bonus” this fall, around the same time that an anti-diversity memo written by an engineer at Google went viral. The memo’s author, James Damore, claimed that he was broadly in favor of workplace diversity and inclusion. But, like Page, Damore felt that diversity policies would always fail if they depended largely on making “morality” or “empathy” mandatory. Damore took a series of strange detours from there, arguing for what amounted to an essential difference between the analytical skills of men and women. His memo, and his subsequent firing, were held up as further proof that diversity advocates had gone too far. {snip}

Demands for diversity once felt insurgent and threatening to those in power because the mere presence of women and people of color seemed disruptive. Of course, that presence often represented a cosmetic adjustment to a rigged game, in which exceptions were held up as proof that the playing field was now level. That version of diversity, all brochures and optics, became safe and mainstream, a self-evident good, a way for institutions to show their capacity for evolution and enlightenment. {snip} It should be no surprise that the backlash against diversity has become safe and mainstream, too.

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