Wednesday, March 09, 2022

The Power of Identity Capitalism

I remember many years ago a candidate was giving a presentation as part of his interview for a senior leadership position. This candidate recounted a marvelous track record, and name-dropped some important EDI initiatives, along with some notable individuals. Of course, this was all performative as he clearly did none of what he had listed off, and in fact, had cared little about it during his tenure. It was a successful interview and he got the job. It was the first time I had encountered the positive publicity that EDI can bring to an organization, and it doesn’t even matter if you don’t support it as long as you talk about it glowingly.  I didn't know it at the time, but it was a form of identity capitalism.

Nancy Leong’s Identity Capitalists: The Powerful Insiders Who Exploit Diversity to Maintain Inequality is a powerful book that argues through a number of case studies that identity capitalism is a process in which an ingroup benefits from outgroup identity. In North America, as are well aware, the main ingroup is usually white, male, heterosexual, and wealthy.  Identity capitalism is also a business strategy. Just professing the value of diversity helps to exonerate a company’s image at a time of negative publicity.

A lot of institutions dishonestly use racial photoshopping to inflate diversity. Have you ever noticed the meticulousness of diversity when in reality the staff is completely homogenous? Leong reveals that campuses often photoshop Black students into group photos. Identity capitalism implies that social problems are easy to solve or have been solved already, yet in reality are only a superficial and performative gesture toward a solution.  The better diversity statement is an honest one: touting the company’s accomplishments but explaining there is more work to do within and beyond the company itself.  There is always a wonderful opportunity to be humble and grow.  

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