History helps us understand change and how the society we live in came to be, the second reason history is inescapable as a subject of serious study follows closely on the first. The past causes the present, and so the future.” ~ Peter N. Stearns

As a diversity and inclusion (D&I) specialist, who is also a professional historian, I’m always taken-a-back by the lack of historicity in most D&I efforts.  Many leaders in the cultural competency movement are adept at conducting surveys, producing proprietary data, implementing Interest Based Resolution (IBR) and Training-of-Trainers (TOT), facilitating team building workshops, “simulating” societies, leading “privilege walks,” “crossing the line,” and “unpacking invisible knapsacks,” but they rarely discuss, let alone advance, their clients understanding of how a nation founded upon pluralism, came to be so divided with regard to race, class, gender, faith, abilities, national origin, and sexual orientation.

Many D&I leaders are fluent in “bottom line” business speak, because that’s what gets contracts signed.  However, they often miss another bottom line.  All truly penetrating and sustainable D&I efforts, must be rooted in historical precedent, and illuminate systemic barriers to parity produced by these patterns.  In the western world, such beginnings must be anchored in indigenous colonization and Black history and life.  This isn’t because Asian Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, members of the faith-based and LGBTQ communities, White women, and the disabled are less important.  It’s because the decimation of Native peoples and the seizing of their lands, coupled with the vicious enslavement and oppression of African Americans, formed the gestalt of modern bigotry, discrimination, and inequality.  In other words, one cannot understand contemporary American social struggles, and proscribe remedies, without a firm knowledge of what former Secretary of State and Four Star General, Colin Powell, described as America’s “original sin,” slavery and its legacy.

And yet, this is precisely what most D&I specialist attempt to do.  A number of “leading” D&I firms, in fact, don’t even model, in their own offices, the kind of inclusive environment that they urge others to value.  “Do as I say, not as I am or do” appears to be their unofficial motto.  Most are certainly not inclined or trained to historicize their work in any meaningful way.  They see diversity and inclusion as “human” problems and usually deploy “universal” strategies to build mutual respect, spur innovation, improve marketing strategies, and increase profits.

“Universal,” popular, and “industry leading” manifestos and practices, such as FranklinCovey’s Championing Diversity regimen, do not drive the kind of intellectual, attitudinal, behavioral, and structural change needed to understand and implement diversity at the next level.  What do they know about the person behind the obligatory black face in the stock photo on their homepage?  Can you truly value and respect individuals who “make it” that far, without knowing the unique, personal, and systemic challenges they and their communities surmounted and still confront? 

D&I gurus who continued to preach universalities and prescribe “solutions” that do not inform and empower people of color, especially Black people, or those who would mentor, teach, hire, promote, and fight for us, are failing to provide the necessary triage for substantive and sustainable change.  The challenges facing people of color, particularly Black boys and men, are acute and rarely if ever discussed explicitly in most D&I facilitations and trainings.  There is a desperate need in the streets and in C-Suites to provide racial triage on behalf of these misunderstood and misrepresented populations, who are usually among the last hired and the first fired.  Schools, colleges, universities, elected officials, and yes, D&I specialists, the people many of us trust and pay to “get it,” continue to send sheep out among wolves, unprotected by the shield of knowledge that awareness of Black history and life can provide.

Schools should lead the way in proving this triage, for parity will only be reached when Black people, and others, are educated about the inextricable link between colonization, slavery, and the racial disparity and conflict we are currently experiencing in America.  Knowledge begets wisdom.  Wisdom begets self-esteem.  Self-esteem begets pride and pride begets confidence.  Confidence begets courage.  Courage begets positive action and positive action begets positive change.  There will be no collective and sustainable advancement, however, without the systemic study of Black history and life.

Studying the Middle Passage for example, as horrific as it was, can boost the self-esteem and performance of Black children and adults, because most non-continental Black people who live and breathe today, do so because someone in the bowels of a slave ship, hundreds of years ago, overcame fear and despair.  There was no alcohol to sooth their fears.  There were no drugs to numb their pain.  Collaborators did not shield them from bondage.  The only physical weapons we wielded were those we commandeered. Our survival was rooted in deep and abiding knowledge of our past.  This knowledge fed our self-esteem and a communal commitment to resistance and freedom in the face of de-humanzation, even if exercised only within ourselves.  Our self-esteem and communalism was grounded in love, love that only a healthy knowledge of self can engender.

Our only escape, and our strongest weapon during the Middle Passage, was our love for ourselves, each other, and our creator.  “Slaves” are not born, they are made.  This is why the first stage in the enslavement “seasoning” process, focused on attacking our self and communal love.  Beginning with our names, language, and customs, then on to our minds, bodies and beliefs, Black people were terrorized, or “seasoned,” into building and upholding the very system which oppressed us.  Others, particularly most White people, were “seasoned” into a sense of supremacy, even though they were mostly uneducated and broke, by the same White slave traders who promoted ignorance and self-hate to feed their avarice and thirst for property and power.

It has been said “if you make someone go through the backdoor long enough, eventually they will go on their own.”  Some will feel fortunate to be admitted at all.  Likewise, if you tell someone that entering through the front door is their racial birthright, eventually they will feel entitled to VIP status wherever they go.  Do most D&I specialists execute their training with these realities and trends in mind?  Do they believe in social triage?  If so, in what historical soil is their work planted?  Can they build the confidence of Black students and workers, and elicit the respect of their White peers, co-workers and leaders?  One cannot truly respect something or someone that they do no understand.  Yet, leaders in the education, non-profit, and business worlds, including a small number of people of color, manage to implement D&I efforts that eschew historical knowledge and context altogether, as if history is elective.


This is why I’m leading a 10 week Culture Quest for “Black History and Life” designed
to enable individuals and organizations to expand their horizons, and enhance their diversity and inclusion efforts, with timely, dynamic, historicized, solutions-based learning, in a C-Suite setting. Designed for professionals and non-traditional learners who wish to remain culturally competent and up-to-speed without enrolling in college courses, Culture Quests are your opportunity to learn from top professionals and practitioners in an intimate, comfortable, and convenient setting. Our Quests facilitate appreciation for diversity, promotes mutual respect, energizes participants, and advances civic participation and nimble leadership.

Black History and Life “is more vital in our own times than ever,” argues historian Peniel Joseph.  “Its descriptive intervention allows us to embrace the fullness of American and world history on a previously unimagined scale.  The struggle for black dignity, both its triumphs and travails, offers a universal story through the particular experiences of African-Americans, one that immigrants, women, people of color and LGBTQ communities can all relate to.”  Indeed, Black History and Life is uniquely positioned to provide perspective, texture, and relevance to any serious attempt to build bridges and inclusive environments. Join Diamond Strategies on our Quest for Black History and Life and experience the efficacy of Black History.

Register Today

Dr. Matthew C. Whitaker is the Founder and CEO of the Diamond Strategies, LLC. He is also the 2016 Arizona Diversity Leadership Alliance (DLA) Diversity and Inclusion Leader Award winner and a decorated educator, author, community engagement specialist, motivational speaker, and founder the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, winner of the 2014 DLA Inclusive Workplace Award, at Arizona State University. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker and DSC can be followed on Twitter at @dstategiesllc

Questions? Contact Diamond Strategies

Images: History.com, “A map of the United States from 1854, with shaded regions indicating slave states, free states and states open to slavery as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of the same year”; iStock; matthewp-culf131811.blogspot.com; Patrick Breen, The Arizona Republic.

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