When Diversity Is Just About “Optics,” It Doesn’t Count

Sep 8, 2018 by

For optics’ sake, let’s be sure not to announce we’ve hired another white guy until we find a woman of color to hire, too. Anyone have any ideas?”

[Cue crickets among mostly white colleagues.]

In the last few years in the United States, I’ve noticed an uptick among self-described liberal leaders to consider questions of hiring, board representation, potential collaborators, and conference speakers as, first and foremost, ones of optics.

Trust me, once you start listening for the word, you will hear it everywhere. Behind closed doors in white-dominant spaces, that is. At nonprofit board meetings, departments at prestigious universities, tech start-ups — basically anywhere where there are white people with power who are liberal enough to care about being seen as such.

The word has also become ubiquitous in media coverage of racial debacles. Corporations need to counter “bad optics” left and right — the incident at Starbucks and the nationwide diversity trainings that followed; Uber maintaining its “corporate optics” by firing managers involved in scandals; that bizarre revolution-commodifying Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner. The #metoo movement has no doubt made many a white male CEO not only look back in a panic, but look around with trepidation. “Have I hired enough women?” they ask themselves behind closed doors. “Have I hired enough people of color? Do I look like a potential Harvey Weinstein?”

So. Many. Optics. To manage.

That one little word speaks volumes about where we are in the United States when it comes to our understanding, but even more importantly, our will regarding diversity and inclusion.


In 2018, there are two dominant white liberal mindsets on this issue. The first, which is rare, genuinely understands the value of having a workforce or school community — or any kind of institution, really — comprising a wide range of demographics. You believe white people have a moral obligation to give up some power and people of color have a moral right to gain it. Beyond this foundational moral motivation, you also believe, as so many studies show, that diversity leads to healthier and more effective organizations. Importantly, you aren’t under the delusion that this is comfortable. It is the very clash of ideas, the changing of hearts and minds, the surfacing of blind spots, the shedding of outdated modes of working, and the relinquishing of power hoarding that leads to the good stuff. But it doesn’t feel easy on the way there. (It’s what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”.)

The second white liberal mindset on this issue is defined not by actually valuing diversity and inclusion, but by doing just enough to be perceived as valuing diversity and inclusion. You are not interested in experiencing discomfort and its rewards (learning, integrity, innovation), but escaping critique. You are probably feeling some sense of scarcity yourself — not enough time to do what is right, not enough of the right contacts to make it feel genuine, not enough runway for failure. The scarcity makes you want to play it safe, to do things as they’ve always been done, but with just enough attention to “diversity” that you don’t appear tone deaf to our times.

The first mindset is hard and meaningful. The second is protectionism and performance.

Source: When Diversity Is Just About “Optics,” It Doesn’t Count

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