‘There are a lot of doors being closed’: Confessions of a PR professional of color on toxic positivity and weaponized incompetence in DE&I

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If 2020 was the year of accountability when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, 2021 is the year of action — or at least it was supposed to be.

After the murder of George Floyd and following calls for racial justice, a number of companies across the industry moved to publish DE&I stats and statements of support and pledges of action. But according to a broad swath of agency execs and employees in previous Digiday reporting, understanding the progress of DE&I at agencies is more complicated than a numerical snapshot.

In this edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, a communications specialist of color talks about frustrations around stagnant diversity initiatives and a lack of intersectionality.

​​This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you think the industry has yet to achieve true diversity, inclusion and equity?

My biggest thought, in terms of diversity and workplace culture, is that I am not an advocate of toxic positivity. That’s the one thing stunting companies. Everyone wants to say this company is so nice and everything’s good. But if you ever bring to light that things aren’t, now you’re the negative Nelly or that person of color who always has something to say. We’re always toeing the line between being candid and trying to hold companies accountable versus being the complainer.

What’s your definition of toxic positivity and how does it play into DE&I goals?

It’s the culture where there are always praise parties. We say everything good that we’ve done. We can say we have this initiative and that initiative. But if we stop there, and we don’t say what else we need to be doing, or here’s where we’re falling flat, that’s where it’s toxic. When the narrative is constantly skewed positive, we forget to stop and recognize that some of it’s neutral and some of it’s negative. That’s where it’s toxic.

For people of color, especially when we raise our hands, saying we need XYZ, I’m laying out my expectations here and what could be changed. People stunt that and say, “Well, what do you want done?” It’s okay to pose that question to people of color. But with toxic positivity comes weaponized incompetence, where it’s, “Oh, I’m white. I really don’t know what you want here and I’m doing what I can.” Go hire a third-party source that’s going to hold you accountable. Go make sure you have an advisory board mixed with people of color, LGBTQIA status and abilities.

Has any of this played out in your personal professional experience?

From the get go, I was a really big champion of diversity. I was helping the recruiting team get [diverse candidates] interested in talking to us. Given, we were understaffed, but they said we were too busy. We never revisited that. You told me you’re trying to network and get diverse candidates, but we couldn’t make time for that and we’re not circling back?

Sometimes there are a lot of doors being closed because no one knows how to put those resources into place. So, we just give up and that’s not the answer either. One of the most difficult conversations is where you spin your wheels, you’ve given all these ideas to executives like, “We still need change. These numbers are still flat or this is still happening in the workplace.” And they’re like, “Well, what do you think we should do?” It’s good that those doors are open. But the tone that people use, the way they ask and how receptive they are to input definitely changes whether it’s really a welcome suggestion, or like, “Well, we asked you. Why didn’t you say anything?”

What do you think the industry response should be?

As a person of color, I need to put skin in the game and hold myself accountable for showing up and giving feedback when we’re being welcomed to give feedback. It falls on the agencies themselves [too] because it can’t just be on one small group of people, especially considering that we are the minority. If all companies care about is hitting those diversity numbers so that they can post about it on LinkedIn, you’re not really doing anyone service. It’s gonna take a lot of moving parts for holistic change to keep going.


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