A seat at the table. A phrase so ubiquitous that few bother to examine it, it has a totally different meaning for those offering “the seat” than it does for those to whom the offer is extended. And therein lies the problem, a problem greater than those who make the decisions generally realize. For in their attempt to project a “diverse” and “tolerant” image—an image that may express their sincere desire to be inclusive—those in power often create a stifling and oppressive situation for those invited to the table.
Sound dramatic? Allow me to describe a common scenario: A school district wants to diversify its personnel by hiring several people of color. Achieving a racial diversity level of about 10 percent of its total employees—including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian people—district administrators are proud to have reached their diversity goals. To further solidify that achievement, they ensure that Black people and other people of color are included on every committee.
On the surface, this is an ideal scenario. Not only has the district leadership attained its racial diversity goals but they seem rather broad-minded as well, inviting people of a variety of races to have a seat at all the committee tables. What could possibly be wrong with this outcome? In a word, equity. The fact that one group does all the inviting while everyone else is by default a “guest” is an inherent lack of equity, ensuring that power rests solely with one group: white people. This further ensures that white privilege and white supremacy—the two phrases those in power most hate to hear yet assiduously pursue—remain fully implemented and deeply ingrained.
I say this not as an indictment but rather as an observation of facts. The truth is that having only ten percent of employees represented by Black people and other people of color—which is a fairly typical level—is not diversity at all. It’s a white setting with a few other people. That certainly shouldn’t be a point of pride. But here’s the real crux of the matter: This inequity is the comfort zone for so many people, and change so frightening, that they have no incentive to change. Hence, the entrenchment of inequity in the face of so-called diversity. That is white supremacy. That is also white privilege.
Yet just reading this makes some people uncomfortable. It upsets the status quo since the unspoken agreement is that white people are in charge, they do the inviting. And if anyone has the temerity to question that equation, there’s often an undercurrent that those invited to the table should be grateful for the invitation. The problem, of course, is that with those who do the inviting also wielding all the power, they effectively keep everyone else—Black people in particular—in whatever place is deemed to be acceptable. If you’re honest, you know it’s true, even if you won’t admit it aloud.
However, I don’t want a seat at the table. I want to assist in the selection of the table. I want to participate in positioning that table and in determining who is invited to it. I want to contribute to the creation of the agenda to be discussed at the table and then to have equal decision-making power at the table. I want equity.
Disguising self-satisfied retention of the status quo by sprinkling in a few faces of color and then putting those faces on display at opportune times is neither diversity nor equity. It’s reinforcement of white privilege that is so deep seated that it passes for normal. It’s not. And educators should be in the vanguard for dismantling this white supremacy. After all, students observe and emulate the behaviors they see. So, what do you want to perpetuate?
Realize that the white way is not the standard. It’s not even always the right way nor the only way. While the comfort zone for those in power may well be maintained by retaining white privilege and supremacy, the days of accepting that are rapidly waning.
So, instead of offering seats at the table, make room for Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous people to share the power, the decision-making, the policy making and, yes, the inviting. It is by the infusion of disparate people, backgrounds, and ideas that we broaden perspectives, expand relevance, and enrich everyone involved. We’re not asking to be included. We’re demanding to be respected as equals. That’s diversity. That’s also equity.