[A version of this post was originally published in Unity Magazine Jul/Aug 2023 issue. Image by Jaque Fragua]
In the last few years Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs have been all the rage. You’ve probably attended a training or workshop at your workplace or at your spiritual community. You’ve also probably noticed that not much has changed since those DEI programs were implemented. Yes, change takes time, but there is likely another reason. While they can be a useful tool to get much needed yet challenging and uncomfortable conversations started, they are rarely designed for long-term systemic change. That’s because they continue to center whiteness, and as a result, may do more harm than good in the long run.
‘Diversity’ asks, “Who’s at the table?” ‘Equity’ responds by bringing attention to who’s not at the table, and the barriers that they face to get a seat at the table. ‘Inclusion’ makes sure everyone’s ideas have been heard. Unfortunately, sometimes the process stops here. It can be frustrating for those at the margins to finally have a seat at the decision-making table only to have their ideas ignored. What’s the next step? Justice.
Justice seeks to make sure the ideas of those in the minority are taken seriously. And not just the racial minority. Too often the underrepresented include women, LGBTQIA+ and non-binary folk, people with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, and more. For true systemic change, however, Justice may not be enough if we don’t take a deeper into the origins of the organization. In other words, “Who built the table in the first place? Why did they build it? Who did they build it for?” This is the work of Decolonizing.
Decolonization, in its more literal sense, is undoing colonization – the forced introduction of social, political, and economic systems by a foreign empire. Decolonization is the process of restoring indigenous cultural, economic, and spiritual practices that were not grounded in the labor exploitation of many for the financial gain of a few.
Regardless of intention, as I wrote in my previous article, we cannot help but bring our internalized and unconscious biases to our practices and creations. The same is true for our spiritual movements. Take Unity, for example, which was founded in the late nineteenth century by a white couple in Missouri. The well-accepted racial discriminations of the time and place were both challenged and reinforced by the movement: black students could enroll in classes, but they could not live on the campus or swim in the pool at Unity Village.
Eventually these overtly racist practices were eliminated, and decades later official apologies proffered. Then why is it that, to this day, the movement’s participants, especially in the USA, are still overwhelmingly white? Maybe because it was the population that it was unintentionally designed to serve from the outset? Maybe because its teachings, both in content and pedagogy, do not take race and ethnicity into account?
To be clear, not taking them into account doesn’t make it inherently nonracist. The teachings are considered universal, but because they were created by white founders in a predominantly white part of the country and likely initially serving a white audience, they did not take into account the systemic obstacles its followers had to face. The creators’ unconscious ideologies would have become embedded by default.
A certain amount of privilege is assumed in order to have opportunities to learn and practice - time, resources, internet access, transportation, mental and emotional bandwidth. Do prosperity teachings, for example, factor in the barriers that have created the well-documented racial wealth gap? Do health and healing principles account for Black people being 75% more likely to live in communities that are next to industrial facilities and directly affected by their pollution Does the movement expect participants to adhere to the teachings rather than the teachings adapt to the adherents?
To their credit, many spiritual and religious movements like Unity have started DEI initiatives to address current wrongs and better serve their diverse participants. But if there’s a true desire for lasting systemic transformation that creates cultural shifts beyond the organizations, the core teachings and theologies have to be decolonized. This does not mean erase them, but sincerely interrogate them. And it's those on the margins who need to do the investigating.