Whitewashing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion — It’s a Thing

Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) — three words commonly used to tiptoe around the fact that our country’s racist hiring, housing, and lending practices are entangled into our corporate DNA and we have to mutate before we can move forward in an authentic and productive way.

Our past and present state of discrimination leads organizations to build and scale with only a homogenous segment of the population in mind (read: white and male), thus rewarding that segment with economic opportunity, decision-making power, and a false sense of merit. The meritocracy myth is currently on full display after the exposure of the college admissions scandal.

Creating the more diverse, equitable, and inclusive economy that we all deserve requires acknowledgment of past discrimination and an examination of how current policies and practices could be perpetuating exclusion across all business functions.

The term “greenwashing” describes companies that adopt an eco-friendly/sustainability-minded external image that is not supported by actual sustainable business practices.

What is the word for companies that hop on the diversity bandwagon like they’re down for the cause when a closer look exposes a lack of thought, understanding, and intention?

For this article, I zoom in on race and gender diversity because that is what I have the most proximity to living as a black woman in the not-even-close-to-post-racial United States.

As defined by Merriam-Webster

Here are three signs to help you cut through the bologna when companies whitewash the DE&I agenda.

1. Most of the images & stock photos for company branded collateral are of white people (or white hands)

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

This is an easy place to start. Get new photos.

Tonl is a great resource for finding culturally diverse stock photos that don’t just stick a person of color on the end of the photo or in the background. Companies that don’t have photos representative of the diverse racial makeup of the United States appear dated and old-fashioned.

It’s worth pointing out that when the brown hand is on the bottom — as is the case in the image above — people of color will notice and more than likely conclude that an organization’s diversity journey isn’t yet real. I said this step was easy, but it does take time and intention.

2. People of color are concentrated in or limited to the bottom of the company hierarchy

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

When people of color are clustered in the hourly wage positions and nowhere to be found on the leadership team, they’ve got a seat on the floor but no spot at the table. Start by naming the elephant in the room.

Porter Braswell, co-founder of a career advancement site for Black, Latinx, and Native American talent called Jopwell, tips for building diverse teams include collecting diversity metrics, advancing goals from sourcing diverse candidates to hiring diverse candidates, and hiring in groups.

3. Leadership references the importance of “thought diversity” while ignoring the importance of other diversity metrics (e.g., race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, etc)

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

I recently heard two CEOs (both women) use a stage and captive audience to laud the importance of thought diversity and it struck me as very tone deaf.

Doubling down on thought diversity is not the hand to bet on. It’s an opaque way of not standing for anything.

Focusing on thought diversity overlooks the deep history of discrimination that led to the underrepresentation of women, people of color, etc. and misses an opportunity to show company commitment to move forward in a thoughtful, inclusive way.

Unconscious bias, employee referral programs, and gender-coded language in job descriptions are common conditions that work against hiring for thought diversity and every other type of diversity.

Once a company puts a stake in the ground to create wealth for all its stakeholders, the importance of achieving diversity of race, gender, age, ability, and sexual orientation is clear.

The next time someone labels diversity of thought as the most important type of diversity, ask if they have already achieved traditional diversity throughout the organization.

If not, let them know we have more work to do.


To move forward we need to hold our companies and our leadership teams accountable. To achieve the visible and invisible diversity that matters and truly reflects the unique composition of our communities, we need to get real about DE&I and we need to see color — or maybe more notably, we need to see where there’s a lack of color.

Katelyn Harris Lange is a current leadership search specialist (executive recruiter) with Y Scouts working to reorient hiring around values and fulfillment. She is a philanthropist involved in the African-American Women’s Giving and Empowerment Circle, Civic Engagement Chair with the Greater Phoenix Urban League Young Professionals, and the current Diversity and Inclusion Director with Net Impact Phoenix Professionals.

Katelyn Harris Lange

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Here for inclusive economic development in Arizona + beyond | Philanthropist and power shifter writing about work, purpose & relationships

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