The centre cannot hold: on diversity and inclusion in tech

Does the language of diversity and inclusion in tech serve us?

In her autobiography, Assata Shakur warns of the slippery nature of “liberal,” both the word and the political concept:

I have never really understood exactly what a ‘liberal’ is, since I have heard ‘liberals’ express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject…As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary.

Similarly, “diversity” and “inclusion” feel like liberal words; like the concept of liberalism itself, they can be rendered devoid of meaning and therefore dangerously susceptible to appropriation, perversion and reversal.

In genuine efforts towards diversity and inclusion in tech, the words are meant to denote  efforts to combat the racist, sexist and otherwise oppressive and discriminatory systems and practices that keep tech such a white, cis male space (i.e. diversity); and, when those marginalized folks actually do make it into tech spaces, ensure that they are not driven away by hostile environments that demand them to conform to that largely white, cis male culture (i.e. inclusion).

However, opportunists are glad to take the words diversity and inclusion and skew them to their own designs. Diversity becomes about “diversity of thought,” a phrase used to rail against communities that make it clear that discriminatory and oppressive words, beliefs and actions are not welcome. Inclusion becomes about ensuring that white supremacists, sexual harassers, active misogynists, transphobes and other similar vectors of oppression are never excluded from the community, no matter how many marginalized people they drive away in the process.

Rather than tech diversity and inclusion, we should instead seek tech equity and justice: explicitly political, less politically empty and mutable language. This is, of course, a far broader and more challenging goal. The explicit political, anti-oppressive nature of tech equity and justice will undoubtedly draw more fire from those committed to maintaining the existing hierarchies and inequities in tech. Additionally, tech equity and justice would need to address a far wider range of inequities and injustices connected to tech, from the racist gentrification of San Francisco and the East Bay, to exploitative labor practices required for the abundance of cheap electronics and devices we consume as techies, to the environmental and human destruction wreaked in order to obtain the basic materials for creating those devices.

Yes, tech equity and justice is a much more challenging road for us to walk, but that is because it gets to the roots of the systems that have made tech diversity and inclusion efforts necessary in the first place. And when you get at the roots of a problem, you’re far more likely to get rid of the problem for good.

(Originally drafted on May 15, 2017; edited and published in the wake of the release of the Google anti-diversity screed.)