In 2015, University of Toronto sociology professor Ellen Berrey — then of University of Denver — wrote an article for the American news and commentary outlet Salon called “Diversity is for white people: the big lie behind a well-intentioned word.” It was, she says, a punchier version of her book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice, itself a culmination of 15 years of research — including six years of ethnographic work at the University of Michigan; Rogers Park, a diverse and gentrifying residential neighbourhood in Chicago; and a major corporation pseudonymously referred to as Starr Corporation.

Through a consideration of admissions policies, housing redevelopment and human resources management, The Enigma of Diversity explores how racial justice is being done in a persistently racialized society. It asks (among other questions) what this justice looks like beyond numbers and statistics and who gets to define the limits of diversity discourse. “The trick of the diversity movement is that it is far easier to symbolize inclusion than to socially dismantle inequality,” Professor Berrey writes.

She has since joined the sociology department at UTM, and has recently co-authored Rights on Trial: How Workplace Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality, a study of how employment discrimination cases move through the American legal system, often further entrenching biases and working against those looking seeking justice. Professor Berrey spoke with the Global Migration Research Institute about the ongoing allure of anti-affirmative action litigation, her upcoming research, and why no institution can get “diversity” 100 per cent right.

The difficulty of translating the ideals of equal opportunity and equity into reality has been with us for a long time. What was your motivation for writing The Enigma of Diversity when you did?

The book began as my master’s thesis. The first case study (of the three) was in Rogers Park. At the time, I was interested in urban sociology, inequality, gentrification and housing politics and I wanted to become an ethnographer. So, I showed up in the neighbourhood in Rogers Park where I was living at the time and started spending time with housing activists who were working on protecting low-income renters there. And after a couple of weeks of that I realized I had to talk to some other people besides the renters and the activists.

A couple of months into my research; I started to get curious about how nearly every organization that I was in contact with across the political spectrum was talking about diversity. Not just talking about diversity, but talking about how they valued diversity and how what they were doing was improving the diversity of the neighbourhood and I thought, “Okay, if the people doing multi-racial cross-class organizing and the developers are all sharing, at least on some surface level, the same principle, there’s something really interesting going on there that such different politics can coalesce around it.”

What surprised you most about your findings?

It’s the fact that one principle – the idea of “diversity” — could come to represent so many different political and economic agendas and that the word “diversity” and the ideas that people associate with it had that much flexibility and malleability, while being important and consequential. When I got to spend some time with conservative activists who were fighting affirmative action I thought, “You want diversity too?” But they’re talking about white people, conservatives, southern Baptists, men: that’s the diverse perspective that they’re bringing. So, I was surprised by how far this concept, which can have very progressive connotations, can travel away from that. And “travel” both in the sense of becoming so superficial and “travel” also in terms of being taken up in agendas that are so contrary to progressive objectives.

What is it that you most wanted readers to take away from your writing and from this book?

It’s twofold. First, I wanted people to come away with a real skepticism about the push for diversity, as it has been mobilized by corporate leaders, university administrators, political officials, and other people in power. The language of diversity can be useful for affirming inclusiveness and building coalitions across groups. It gives us a vision of a better society. But, the prevailing top-down discourse on diversity is too often superficial. One common message is that inclusion is instrumentally beneficial: good for corporations, good for learning, even good for White people. This rationale is not adequate for addressing the more fundamental goals of integration and equality, and the policies that leaders pursue in the name of diversity often fail to achieve those goals successfully.

The second point is more conceptual. My goal is to get readers to think in sophisticated ways about the use of discourse in politics. People use words, symbolism, and systems of meanings to exercise power. Power operates through discourse, and power gets challenged through discourse. But that process is not straightforward; there is a need for attention to nuance, especially to the uses of discourse in everyday organizational and political life, not just the abstract meanings. I wanted to capture that nuance.

How can marginalized groups — those who are usually targeted for diversity initiatives — challenge the organizational cultural that will sometimes reinforce inequalities?

One of the most important things (and this goes beyond the topic of diversity) is that groups that have been marginalized need to be at the decision-making table and have input on decision making. And that includes having some influence over both the language but even more fundamentally the definition of what the problem is. That’s the ideal scenario. But we also need to be mindful of the burdens of “diversity work,” as Sara Ahmed calls it, on people of colour and other marginalized groups. When those groups are involved in decision making – that’s more labour they’re doing. And it’s uncompensated labour. And it’s all the more problematic given that diversity committees often lack authority and their reports so often end up dusty on a shelf, never implemented So, while an organization may need better minority representation, administrators need to be very careful not to exploit those very groups, who usually are already bearing so many other burdens tied to their marginalization in the institution.

That’s one piece. And then when there is an effort at inclusion, there is sometimes a fundamental need to just get recognition of the issue: that exclusion is a problem of inequality that merits redress. Buy-in has to come from throughout the organization, including the leadership, especially from White people, men, whomever is in the dominant or majority groups. It can be quite difficult. I was reading in the Toronto Star, about Angelique EagleWoman, an Indigenous woman who became dean of the Lakehead University Law School about two years ago and just resigned, citing there was just too much systemic racism in this environment.

When the approach is just “diversity by design,” does it work?

It depends what the goal is. If the goal is staying vague and protecting institutional interests, “diversity” is an easy, safe principle to go with. If the goal is to just get “the numbers” up, then the aims are short-sighted. When organizational leader talk about diversity, there’s so often a subtext, an unrecognized agenda of saying: we don’t want this to scare white people, or white men, or straight people too much. That might very well be an important of the puzzle, but the risk is that it’s unfair to the people whose needs need to be met, because the efforts and rhetoric stay surface-level and cater to those who might be offended. But if the goal is trying to create longer term institutional change and truly serve the populations who need to be served, then “diversity” can be useful, in terms of identifying cross-group issues and cross-group commonalities. But it isn’t enough on its own. In my research, I observed some people effectively combine diversity with other values and objectives like justice, power, or affordability.

Speaking of making people uncomfortable: part of the University of Michigan case is about how “affirmative action” is a very contentious term to use. Does it surprise you that affirmative action is still such a talking point today?

One argument is that Americans’ concerns about affirmative action are not really about affirmative action. Jennifer Hochschild at Harvard University says the affirmative action debate is about people’s projections of the American Dream. Do they believe that the American Dream is about the individual’s hard work that shows that they’re meritorious? Or is the American Dream about creating a more level playing field for Black Americans to have the opportunities that are their due? And then there’s a sociologist Wendy Leo Moore who just published an interesting piece in the sociology magazine Context. She says that, at this point, affirmative action is a rhetorical tool that becomes a way to challenge the idea of racial equity and maintain an agenda of white supremacy; we should think of it as a rhetorical device more than anything. I think there’s a lot of truth in that argument because when you look at the universities and the companies that will defend affirmative action, they don’t even use the word “affirmative action” any more. That’s out of their lexicon.

I think the litigation that challenges universities’ affirmative action admissions policies continue because there are real vested interests in white domination, white supremacy. Opposition to affirmative action is one of those channels where those interests are still somehow legitimate. The legal cases have been about white victimhood, especially white women and their victimhood, and individuals being hurt. Although right now, with these new cases against Harvard and University of North Carolina, there’s this twist of saying that affirmative action is discriminatory against Asian American applicants, although the survey data shows that Asian Americans on the whole support affirmative action.

Your focus is on the American context but a lot of the themes and the findings of the study are relevant here. “Diversity is our strength” is Toronto’s motto; it’s on our coat of arms. Multiculturalism is in our constitution and it’s a big part of Canadian identity. Given all of that, how can prospective students and employees in a place like U of T or any other Canadian institution start to think about this issue or how can they measure an institution’s commitment to diversity?

Even prior to that question is the importance of recognizing in Canada how much the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism have gotten tied to nationalism. We always should be asking: what is the project of nationalism that we’re endorsing here? I think because it comes so much from the state here, that’s part of what’s unique to the Canadian context. In the 2018 Winter Olympics Canada was hosting Pride House and that’s a pretty cool part of nationalism, I have to say, but we also want to be questioning who is that nationalism for and who is that serving? I don’t think diversity or multiculturalism should be the framework for addressing the legacy of colonization and ongoing marginalization abuse of Indigenous people here. But your question was how can students and faculty and staff in Canadian institutions — how can they think about the issue differently?

Yes, given that diversity is such a huge part of Canadian identity, how do you measure an institution’s commitment to that goal beyond the broad and abstract?

This is very baseline but having the numbers and knowing the demographics of the students, faculty, and staff—that’s fundamental. It’s shocking that we haven’t had that information here at U of T, although the university has just recently started to collect it. It’s not consistent nationally either, but most universities are similarly in the dark. That taps into a broader issue, as I’ve been learning, that because higher education here is so decentralized, there’s not a lot of consistent data reporting across universities. Once you get the numbers it then becomes easy to focus on which students applied, were admitted, and graduated or not, or which faculty members were hired, tenured and promoted to full. We’re not at that baseline yet. But when you get past there, it gets back into what we were talking about earlier, of changing the culture and engrained institutional practices, like the very criteria we use for determining who is “excellent.” Rigorous sociological research shows that, U.S. universities and colleges that have stopped using standardized admissions tests as admissions criteria have enrolled more students of colour without compromising academic standards.

How do we know when multiculturalism, inclusivity, diversity has worked? Or is there even a point at which it’s worked and we’re done?

No single organization is going to get everything right. I think that it’s important to zero in on what can organizations do, what can a university do, but also what are that university’s strengths? The University of Toronto likes to think of itself as a very elite, global institution and that is how multiculturalism is going to get done here, within that framework. Hopefully that gets done successfully; hopefully that means, to some extent, changing what we think an elite institution is. I think that’s coming up some more, especially with Indigenous scholars coming to the university. For so many Indigenous scholars, their priority is not necessarily publishing in a top tier academic journal. Their priorities may be quite different, and likely are informed by the Indigenous communities they are connected to. We have to shift our idea of what’s excellent to include these sorts of dynamics. So, in my opinion, to determine if multiculturalism is working, we should look at the definition of “excellence” for whatever that organizational environment, to see if that definition has shifted and expanded to better account for the self-definitions of the most marginalized groups. That could be the litmus test. A controversial one, no doubt! Because it goes to the heart of how people can succeed in the organization. There are a lot of vested interests in the status quo.

How is your work received differently by students here and in the States?

In one of my classes I teach the Salon article and a chapter on affirmative action that I wrote and revised with our undergraduates here in mind. University of Toronto undergraduates tend to have a hard time getting their heads around race-conscious admissions. A lot of them seem uncomfortable with the idea that they would be identifying their race on an application and that could be any part of the consideration. I think that part is— at least for the students in my classroom — that’s outside their framing of what would be acceptable and so that surprised me a little bit. In the United States, students of colour don’t want to be identified as necessarily an affirmative action recipient, but there’s widespread support among students of colour that this is an important intervention to have. In the United States, I heard students frame it more politically where here it was more like, “That doesn’t fit my identity.”

Some of it’s how students are getting presented with the issue, like when they have to fill out a form asking them to racially identify. We can explain the purpose—to identify patterns of discrimination and inequality and create opportunity for those who have been unfairly excluded. Or we can say nothing. Then people are more likely to see the form as an obnoxious exercise of squeezing their identity into a checkbox, and those checkboxes do so much violence to how we think of ourselves and live in the world. People don’t like to think that they can be contained in a checkbox, understandably.

Do you have a sense of how your research on diversity discourse and politics would have been done differently here?

The Enigma of Diversity really foregrounds the relationship between the top-down push for diversity and Black racial inequality and the Black civil rights movement. The context of racism in the United States is far more complex than the Black-White divide, but that divide, and how other groups have been folded into it, is fundamental to the diversity movement. Racial politics don’t break down like that in Canada. And I’m a newcomer to Canada; I’ve only been here less than two years that I don’t know the complexities of racial divisions in the same way. But I’ve been trying to learn about it as much as possible and to teach about it, so I can get more up to speed. I do think Indigenous issues would be more central to my study, if I had done it here, and the tension between the English-speaking and Francophone populations (which is the foundation of Canadian multiculturalism, actually). That and immigration. There’s such widespread — not unqualified — but such widespread support for immigration and coming from both the conservative side of the spectrum and the more liberal side. Those are the three big differences unique to this Canadian context that I know I would have to account for.

You mention that the diversity managers at Starr Corporation at one point were suspicious of your questions because the company was in the midst of large lay-offs, and some managers suspected you might be an informant. I wondered how you thought about your identity while you did this work.

Different parts of my identity were more salient in the different case studies. I think of my identity in two ways: how people viewed me while I was doing the research and then the other piece was what I brought to the analysis. All the way throughout, being white and being female and coming from an affluent background: that’s always in play. In the corporate case study, many diversity managers really warmed up to me when they found out I was pregnant and I started to “show.” In headquarters, there was a strong norm of being family-oriented and suburban, and so suddenly people were talking to me about kids and baseball and offering me maternity hand-me-downs.

What was uniquely important in the Rogers Park case was me being a student because it’s such a studied community. Loyola University is in the neighbourhood and Northwestern University is nearby; both universities do a lot of research there. There was some distrust of students who show up and then leave, just as I eventually did after three years of fieldwork. But sometimes being a student opened doors, too.

In the Michigan case, being a White person became even more important and salient because the issue of affirmative action is so racialized and there were many tensions around that. Also, the litigation was polarizing. As a White person in environments that are entirely (or majority) people of colour — or even in White environments — we’re always making mistakes, even when we have good intentions. We may misinterpret what’s going on, say things that are unthinking or cruel, or add to people’s suffering. That’s just part of the process of having lived in a privileged position, further complicated by the power a researcher and writer can have. The obligation there is to try not to make mistakes and, when we do, try to rectify them and try to develop some self-understanding. In the Michigan case and in Rogers Park, part of my philosophy was “do no harm.” That’s the starting point: don’t mess up people’s lives. That should be the philosophy for any ethnographer. Hopefully we do better than that but it’s so easy to do harm, even if that harm is heightening distrust of random White people.

To your question- there’s no simple answer to any of this, but because I was navigating so many different groups, and identities are intersectional, there were moments where some of my identities were more salient than others. That required a constant learning process and stumbling and self-reflection.

Can you tell me a little bit about working on Rights on Trial?

That was fun to write with other people (Robert L. Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen). When you co-author, you can go as far as you can go on a chapter, and then hit “send” and you have that mental break. Also, there are some ways which, when you write with other people, you are depending on their knowledge on different topics or methods, and it makes for a strong final product. The book is very comprehensive because it’s got this massive quantitative piece and this in-depth qualitative piece. But that breadth makes each coauthor a little vulnerable because you’re depending on what your collaborators know, and then representing as if you know it all. There are parts of the book that I understand intimately, and then some of the more quantitative parts I am not as steeped in. Compared to my first book, Rights on Trial was easier to write because it has clear boundaries around it. The story was fairly clear compared to the first book. It’s laser focused on people’s experiences of employment discrimination and litigation.

You write about this and I think, generally, people understand that often these stories of employment discrimination don’t make it to the courts or find a solution in court.

Especially in the employment discrimination setting but in lots of different ways, the courts are where we turn to try to solve disputes, right? That’s what the fundamental purpose of law is: to resolve our disputes peacefully. That law is so ill equipped to do so is disheartening.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing a number of different small projects that have some overlap between them. I have one study right now that’s looking at campus student organizing with a focus on anti-racism organizing in the United States and Canada. For that, I’m working with Alex Hanna who is in the CCIT (Community, Culture and Information & Technology) program. I’ve started to do more quantitative research on affirmative action in admissions in the U.S. That project is collaborative and getting more basic numbers about which universities and colleges are doing affirmative action and what its effects are. One of those collaborators and I got more interested in moving away from the focus on elite schools and thinking more about the broader field of higher education. Often, people talk about higher education in the United States as Harvard and Yale and the other twenty most prestigious institutions, and then they assume what happens at the top schools applies to the rest of the country. We shouldn’t make that assumption.

My two other projects pivot more into environmental issues, something I studied as an undergraduate and I taught a lot but haven’t had as part of my research agenda; I’ve been looking for ways to bring those issues in. One is about right-wing populist opposition to sustainability planning in U.S. cities and suburbs. The other is about new corporate law in the United States that challenges the model of shareholder supremacy, that enables companies to prioritize “people” and “the planet” along with profits. I’m studying those companies, to understand just how beneficial they actually are.

Given that I’m in a new country and I recently wrapped up two large projects, right now I’m playing with different ideas, exploring new topics, shaking things up a bit. Sociology is such a broad field that it’s easy to do that.

That sounds fun.

It is fun. It is kind of liberating.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.