Module 1: Key Concepts in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Key Concepts

What is EDI?

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies and activities have intensified across institutions, sectors and professions. They refer to a variety of interventions usually centred on talent acquisition and retention, training and professional development strategies and processes designed to address implicit bias as well as the physical and psychological climate of safety. These practices aim to diminish or eliminate social exclusion by countering overt and covert discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes and practices that manifest in workplaces, schools and elsewhere. In other words, EDI is a strategic response to various –isms such as racism, sexism, cissexism and ableism. Additionally, homophobia and Islamaphobia.

bell hooks defines racism as the “institutional, cultural and interpersonal patterns and practices that create advantages for people legally defined and socially constructed as White, and the corollary disadvantages for people defined as ‘non-White’” (60). Sexism refers to “discriminatory and prejudicial beliefs and practices” directed against women and men and linked with sex-role stereotypes” (American Psychological Association). Ableism is defined by Campbell as “a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then, is cast as a diminished state of being human” (“Inciting Legal Fictions” 44). Discrimination and prejudicial attitudes based on race, gender and sexual orientation, and the ability to differentiate, rank, and prioritize forms of sentient life (Campbell, “Queer Anti-Sociality” 287–288) and, by so doing, hinder members of equity groups from participating fully in economic, political and social activities. Gender, ethnic and cultural diversity is framed as a business case for improving a company’s profitability. While an ethically grounded case is being made for equity and decolonization of racial, gender, and disability justice. To understand the differences between these two cases, it is necessary to review the constituent elements of EDI.

Elemental Components

Within the EDI trinity, diversity is the easiest and quickest to operationalize since it involves recruiting, retaining, and promoting staff from underrepresented groups verifiable through tracking systems and diversity audits. Inclusion is more challenging since it involves the integration of underrepresented groups into the decision-making apparatus. Therefore, this is not just a numbers game, but a measure of the redistribution of power. Sometimes inclusion and diversity are coupled. For example, McKinsey & Company reports that companies with executive teams comprising more than 30% of women outperformed companies with less diverse (10-30%) teams. Sometimes equity and inclusion are precursors to more radical political and social change implicated by equity and decolonization.

Equity entails understanding the factors that contribute to systemic racism and discrimination, and committing to critical action, which may include removing barriers to access, providing appropriate support systems, and reconciling past injustice through reparations. The inclusion of persons from historically underrepresented groups means that it is not just business as usual, since they bring with them a lived experience that is different from the experiences of the advantaged group. Decolonizing entails incorporating alternative forms of knowledge and lifeways formerly silenced, delegitimized or eliminated, such as Indigenous languages and spirituality (Santos 20). Therefore, employers must not only be concerned with who is sitting on boards or managerial positions, but what forms of knowledge they bring. Companies will be reluctant to bring onboard people who may not share the same priorities, or may be confident that those who bring a different perspective will “come around” with time. However, the desired outcome of equity and decolonization policies is transformation.

For example, if the wording is ordered based on an ascending degree of difficulty, it produces diversity, inclusion, equity (and decolonization) or DIE/DIED. Obviously, this acronym is rarely used, if at all, partly for its cringe-worthiness. But, putting aside such objections, death and dying may help clarify what is intended to be blunted through equity and decolonization. Consider, for example, the deaths of 6000 Indigenous children at residential schools, and more than 1000 murdered and kidnapped Indigenous women in Canada. Consider also the names memorialized like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd – Black victims of racial violence in the United States. These deaths cannot be accounted for by the misdeeds of some individual “bad apples.” They reflect broader historical, political, economic, and socio-cultural structures and practices that privilege some over others. Subsequent modules will explore these systems and structures of power and privilege as they relate to the respective themes.

How EDI is expressed and conceived – whether as inclusion and diversity or diversity, equity, inclusion and decolonization, or other variations – depends, in part, on how problems of discrimination and violence are understood as an issue of profitability or transformation. While most persons agree that discrimination and violence based on differences related to race, ability, sex and gender orientation should be diminished or eliminated, there is no consensus around how to realize this aspirational goal. Some suggest that human rights need to be better enforced to ensure equality and the full participation of citizens in their societies. Human rights are “rights (entitlements) held simply by virtue of being a human being” (Donnelly 303). They are recognized, protected, and enforced by national and international legal and constitutional frameworks. However, as will be discussed in Modules 2 and 3, notions of who is a human and sub-human have changed with time, suggesting that these categorizations of people are constructed. These social constructions require closer examination as to their purpose, impacts, and outcomes as it relates to theories of inclusion and exclusion.

Others believe that recognizing, protecting and enforcing human rights is necessary but not sufficient. In this case, EDI policies and practices will amount to compensatory measures in the absence of systemic and structural reforms, including radical, economic, political, and social change. Therefore, discrimination is not directly related to individual behaviour or pathology. Instead, everyone is implicated in the reproduction of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination. For example, systemic racism is not just attributable solely to persons who are blatantly racist. It refers to organizational or societal institutions and the cultural norms that shape policies, practices and outcomes that disproportionately disadvantage equity groups (Pizaña). This means that the problem is not restricted to White nationalists and White supremacist groups. Most White people participate in systematic racism both knowingly and unknowingly, as it is normalized and routinized within systems, structures and institutions intended to reinforce their power and privilege. After all, as Bonilla-Silva writes, if racism is about fighting or educating the “racists,” then “cohort replacement and increasing the educational level of the population would have already produced the elimination of the problem” (524). bell hooks refers to structural factors using the catch-all phrase “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to emphasize how gender, race, and class co-produce hierarchical power relations that oppress some groups while privileging White peoples (hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy” 1). hooks understands racial and gendered inequalities as the result of economic structures and patriarchal systems. Patriarchy is “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (hooks 1).

Therefore, a business case stresses diversity and inclusion, and makes the argument based on profitability, and may invoke the concept of rights. A critical approach emphasizes equity and decolonization and the need for structural change – including economic (capitalism) and social (patriarchy) structures. The concept of intersectionality proposed by Kimberlé Crenshaw adds a layer of complexity. Intersectionality framed her critique of legal structures that force people to identify based on one category. For example, a woman fired from a job can file a lawsuit based on her sex or race, but not both, since arguments that combined categories were not recognized in US law. Crenshaw argued that these categories intersect and affect the oppression experienced by Black men and women (Crenshaw 1243). By extension, it is not sufficient to talk about women in leadership positions because the experience of White women generally differs from that of Black women with respect to racism. Similarly, a Black, disabled man will most likely have a different experience from a White, disabled man or woman.

Watch this video, Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is Intersectionality? to learn more about intersectionality in Crenshaw’s words.

However, some have found intersectionality to be of limited use, since it neither predicts nor prescribes which dimension takes precedence and under what conditions (i.e., is it race, class, abilities, gender, or sexual orientation) that exerts the greatest influence on the identity, preferences and behaviour of persons. Partly due to its elasticity and applicability to multiple identity groups, the concept has strayed from its original purpose, as Crenshaw observes. It is now commonly applied to promote individual behaviours like recognizing difference, being sensitive to the words we reach for, and seeking other points of view. But reducing intersectionality solely to individual behaviours is to repurpose the concept away from problematizing structures that make race invisible. Furthermore, this stunted view diminishes the complex and multi-dimensional impacts, choices and influences that shape the lives and circumstances of people not part of the dominant groups.

Why EDI Now?

There has been a noticeable uptick in efforts to institutionalize equity, diversity and inclusion in the academy, the private and non-profit sectors. These activities include convening anti-discrimination task forces and developing action plans, appointing EDI professionals and issuing commitments, setting targets, and establishing monitoring systems. The rise of EDI discourses and focus on dedicating resources at this moment is not happenstance; it reflects multiple factors, reviewed briefly below:

Factor 1: Demographic Shift

A racial demographic shift is underway in many western states as a result of lower natural birth rates and immigration. According to the 2016 census, 7.7 million racialized individuals in Canada comprised 22% of the population, up 16% from ten years earlier. By 2031, almost one-third of the population will be members of a visible minority.

Factor 2: Widening Wealth Inequality

Global wealth inequality has widened, as shown in Figure 1.1 below. 1% of the world’s population controls 43% of the world’s wealth. These figures indicate persistent income disparities despite a longstanding commitment to human rights enshrined in constitutional frameworks and international human rights instruments, such as the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons. This disconnect between the lived experience of racialized groups and public commitments to equality suggests that legal protections are necessary but not sufficient.

Global adult population and share of total wealth by wealth group, 2019
Figure 1.1. Global adult population and share of total wealth by wealth group, 2019. “The Richest 1% Own Almost 46% of the World’s Wealth: Global adult population and share of total wealth by wealth group, 2019” by is licensed under CC BY 3.0. 


In Canada, data from Block et al. based on the 2016 census shows that racialized workers are more likely to be unemployed (9.2%) as compared with their non-racialized counterparts (7.3%). Data also shows a gap in employment income. Racialized women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men. Racialized men earn 78 cents for every dollar that non-racialized men earn (11-12). Non-racialized women earn 67 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men.

Factor 3: Mobilized Social Movements

Related to factor 2 above, ongoing inequalities contribute to the mobilization of social movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, disability rights and justice and queer movements. These, in turn, activate reactionary movements, as evidenced by the resurgence of support for White nationalist movements.

Factor 4: Research on Microaggressions

Scholars working in the field of psychology have examined forms of microaggressions. These are “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Sue 3). Since microaggressions are subtle, oftentimes, it is hard to judge whether the behaviour is a microaggression and what should be the most effective response. When a White woman clutches her purse while passing Black youth on the sidewalk, she implicitly communicates a microaggression. When two male co-workers call a female colleague a “bitch” in casual conversation after she expresses herself with confidence in a staff meeting, they are explicitly communicating a microaggression (Torino et al. 3).



Three Types of Microaggressions

There are various ways to classify microaggressions in the scholarship. Sue and colleagues identified three types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.


Microassaults are overt verbal, nonverbal, or environmental attacks that express discrimination and biases against groups based on race, sex, sexual orientation, abilities, and religion (Sue 8). Examples include hiring only men for certain roles, using offensive terms like “faggot” or asking to move seats on a plane to avoid sitting beside a Muslim.

Individuals enact microassaults under three conditions: (a) when they are assured of a degree of anonymity; (b) when they are in the company of others who share or tolerate their assumptions, beliefs and actions; or (c) when they are unable to control their feelings or actions. In all cases, the intent is to hurt or injure the target of the microassault, and there is no doubt about intentionality. For these reasons, microassaults are easier to deal with than either microinsults or microinvalidations (Torino et al.).


Microinsults are unconscious verbal or nonverbal actions that are rude, insensitive or denigrate a person’s ability or identity-based on race, gender or sexual orientation (Sue 9). Although microinsults are delivered unconsciously, these subtle snubs deliver a hidden message. For example, when a Black woman at a meeting is asked to jot down the minutes because she is assumed to be a secretary (and not a manager). The message here is that Black women lack the intellect or educational qualifications to be managers (Torino et al.).


Microinvalidations are unintentional verbal and nonverbal behaviours that deny, diminish, or dismiss the feelings and experiences of persons who are targeted by systemic racism and discrimination (Sue, “Microaggression” 10-11). For example, a person might tell a person of colour that they “don’t see colour.” Persons like this, who claim they are colour blind or, in other words, treat everyone the same and see people as humans rather than groups defined by their race or ethnicity, express a common microinvalidation. Since colour-blindness fails to acknowledge how the colour line marks and segregates people and justifies violence, it denies and invalidates the lived experience of people subject to systemic racism and discrimination (Sue et al. 7).

Test Yourself


Viral Social Media Example of a Microaggression

Consider the viral exchange that took place in New York City in 2020 between a Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper (no relation) while she walked her dog in Central Park. Which of the three types of microaggressions best describes the behaviour shown in the video and/or described below?

Read the description below or watch the video in the NYT article.

[Video Description] Briefly, Ms. Cooper becomes combative after Mr. Cooper asks her to leash her dog in accordance with the park’s rules. Ms. Cooper threatens to call the police. In speaking to a dispatcher, she repeatedly says that she is being recorded and threatened by an “African-American man”, each time at a higher pitch to suggest the threat of imminent harm. Mr. Cooper takes out his phone to record the episode. From the outset, he attempts to disarm her threats by saying that he hoped she would call the police. He understands that these interactions can quickly get out of control or be mischaracterized. He records the exchange in an act of self-defence to render video evidence against potential false accusations of violence. The two left the park before police arrived.

Commentary: Ms. Cooper’s behaviour conforms to a microassault. She was intentional and selected her words carefully for the maximal effect of intimidating and threatening Mr. Cooper. The threat to police encodes the potential use of violence and even lethal force. The reference to “African-American” infers danger.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

In the absence of birth control and other reproductive technologies, women have traditionally been principal caregivers for children and the elderly. Their productive but unpaid labour has contributed to their vulnerability and lower status. Women’s access to education, and higher age at marriage, contribute to lower birth rates, and enable more women to enter the labour force. But, women are concentrated in low-wage sectors such as essential services, and care work. Men, on the other hand, in the absence of bearing children, have been unencumbered by unpaid domestic labour as compared to women, and these differences contribute to the gender pay gap and reinforce gender hierarchies.

Patriarchy is “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy” 1). Patriarchy generates a system of administrative control that begins from birth with the designation of newborns as male or female based on genetic and physiological characteristics that determine sex. The determination of male or female sets in motion socialization processes in gender roles and the differential treatment of boys and girls. Gender is neither fixed nor immutable. Rather, the performance of gender is tied to constructions of femininities and masculinities which evolve in tandem with social norms, knowledge and technologies (Butler). Connell proposed the term “hegemonic masculinity” to understand both women’s subordination and inter-male hierarchies. Hegemonic masculinity presents a standard against which men are measured and femininity is contrasted based on a White, male, heterosexual archetype. Typical features include violence and aggression, competitiveness, adventure and thrill-seeking, athleticism, toughness, physical strength, emotional restraint, courage, and achieving success. Persons falling short of this ideal, such as men and boys who are effeminate and trans persons who do not conform to the male/female binary, become subject to ridicule as well as verbal and physical violence.


Capitalism and, specifically, neoliberal capitalism have guided public policy-making in western, liberal democracies since the 1980s. Neoliberalism promotes individualism, free-markets, and is averse to state intervention on the grounds that it threatens individual freedom and economic efficiency. At the same time, neoliberal policies have contributed to growing inequality gaps, as shown in Figure 1.1 earlier in this module. EDI is one of multiple strategies to close these gaps. It assumes that inclusion will reduce economic and social inequalities, increase innovation and strengthen efficiency. These assumptions preempt questions like inclusion into what? The language of inclusion implies a gatekeeper – someone is setting the criteria for inclusion. Only those who meet the criteria will be included (Osberg & Biesta 595), which leads to another question – who might be excluded by inclusion strategies?


A thorough discussion of the interconnections between class, race, gender, and disability is beyond the scope of this module. Nonetheless, two frameworks are presented, and you are encouraged to refer to additional resources provided.

A Critical Reading of Capitalism

An alternative way to connect race, capitalism, and patriarchy calls for a critical reading of capitalism as reflected in the demands of radical social movements, including disability justice (Module 3) and abolitionist activists who argue for liberation – code for the transformation of capitalism. This is because the interests of the capitalist elite lie in securing control of at least three factors necessary for creating and maximizing surplus value: i) land and other forms of capital, which now include control over data; ii) productive workers, which involves the subordination of some groups based on social hierarchies based on religious doctrine or quasi-science (one-drop rule, blood quantum, eugenics) that justified the oppression of Black, Indigenous and persons of colour; iii) the attention of consumers by generating demand for goods and services.

In the past, periods of expansion have been characterized as a race. The so-called scramble for Africa of the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, carved out the continent among imperial powers to facilitate the extraction of resources and industrialization in the metropole. In the contemporary period, the race to control land has been replaced by non-terrestrial data and the expansion into space. Like land, data can be used to produce surplus value. Data can be sold to companies, to target consumers, and to inform preferences and behaviours through algorithmic decisions. Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism. Unlike land, which needs to be cleared from its original occupants to be controlled, data requires the consent of the user, which is now a routine check of a box.



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