In the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020, individuals and organizations across the world sought to understand what had happened and many received a crash course in understanding that racism is alive in the US and is very deadly. What followed were protests, more violence, a pandemic, and a call for action to not only the government but corporations. Brands that make millions of dollars and companies that were far too eager to find a way to turn Black Lives Matter into a commodity.
What is performative DEI?
A good method to define when an approach is performative is to examine whether the action creates a real measurable impact for those marginalized both inside and outside of your company.
A typical performative action that is often seen is putting a blurb or logo that is symbolic of a marginalized group or activist movement. Take rainbow-stamping--the symbolic act of transforming your company logo with the rainbow flag in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Another was Black Lives Matter and that dreaded "blackout square" gesture that was considered confusing and unproductive.
I know what you may be thinking. "What's wrong with honoring the movement publicly by transforming our logo?"
Actually, nothing is inherently wrong with it. However, context is everything here.
Let's ask some deeper questions. Is this all that you're doing to support that community? Because if it is, what you're doing is no more than a symbol to create a platform for no one but...the company, not your employees. Not the community you serve. It's symbolic, therefore, simply performative.
The work goes far beyond an updated logo. Companies who are serious about the work needed to be more inclusive and equitable (and that change-making is hard and ongoing) know that the logo is the LAST thing to be concerned about.
Let's ask some more deep questions like we did above (and answer honestly). How are you supporting and protecting that group within your own company? What policies and behaviors could be hurting that community right now under your roof that you have not changed?
When companies miss that introspective look and jump to a rainbow logo, a BLM post on social media, or (as the government did) putting Maya Angelou on a quarter that her image shares with that of a slave owner, you are sending a message that DEI is only cosmetic and superficial. And your employees can smell the fakeness from a mile away. In fact, you are likely insulting your LGBTQ+ employees by having the audacity to slap a rainbow on your logo and say you support Pride, but have a company that doesn't offer parental leave or allows low-key homophobic behavior to go unchecked in your workplace.
No Black talent is being promoted but you tout how Black Lives Matter. This is what we mean when we say, 'performative DEI'. It's not really DEI at all--it's a presentation. It's perceived as a show you force everyone to see to convince them you care. When these employees are fed up with your tap dance and window-dressing with symbols, instead of solving internal issues that harm them, they will leave you. They will warn others about your practices. Many will never trust your company again.
I understand the importance of symbols in society. They are inspiring, simple, and a part of communication. They help us rally together around something we can all be a part of and/or celebrate. The problem is that we lean on symbols far too often and far too early in the equity journey for it to have any real impact on change.
I'll be frank, it's low-hanging fruit.
It doesn't take much to redesign your logo for the moment, but actually gathering data from your employees, proposing policy changes within your company, and delegating funds and power is a much heavier lift and doesn't have the 'curbside appeal' than a cool logo. A lot of this systemic change work isn't pretty or sexy--but it's necessary all the same.
Because a lot of organizations haven't grasped this, they often float to something that shows outwardly that they are thinking about the situation at this time. But the employees watching, may be wondering: "What about the other 364 days of the year?"
The addiction to outwardly project first and foremost that companies are anti-racist, anti-bigoted, and support Black Lives Matter, gives that whole "Look at me! We're not like those other companies. Our best friends are Black, Brown, and Gay!" vibes. If it doesn't give you the side-eye, it probably should. There's a reason that we say that allyship is not a self-identifier--marginalized groups determine whether people or a corporation is an ally to them. It's not a badge you can pin on your lapel to flaunt to all your competitors and friends. It is a lifelong journey, not a destination.
We get it. There's a lot of pressure to be one of the "good ones", right now and optics are really important in hopes to stand out from the crowd. The collective culture of "it's not what it is, it's what it looks like", can often force organizations to focus more on the external perception than on how they choose to repair and function internally. But, the problem with this approach is pretty obvious, though--no one will ever be as big of a brand ambassador for your company as your internal talent.
These are the people you should be jumping for. They help run your business, they are stewards of your workplace culture, they share their experiences with others, and may even refer other amazing talent to work for you. They stay year after year and put up big numbers for you, the company. These are the champions you need to win over. And you do that by digging in, listening to them, and putting actual change in place where they and others after them can benefit. Are they asking for more floating holidays for mental health? Work on that. Have they shared their complaints about certain abusive workers are going unresolved? You need to jump on that, stat. Need for a prayer room, a nursing room at work? Let's make it happen. Hold yourselves as leaders and decision-makers accountable for truly building a place where your organization thrives.
Thriving is growth. Growth is power.
No one's saying you can't put that rainbow on your logo, or a black box--we're saying that when you do that AFTER you impact the system within your company, that gesture now just feels like icing on the cake. Because this time, you're not just trying to make your messy insides just look pretty on the outside while your employees suffer. You're not reaching for the low-hanging fruit. You're aiming higher, past mediocrity and into real change, and not just window-dressing that everyone can see through. That will feel really good.
And that is what 'doing the work' in diversity, equity, and inclusion looks like when you're not addicted to the performative DEI mess so many organizations are obsessed with, and in turn, destroying their brand.
Hope you join us outside that performative bubble where real change happens. We'd love to have you.
What are some performative DEI tactics and behavior you've seen out in the wild? How is it performative? Please share below!