Guest opinion: Reaching ‘equity, diversity and inclusion’ needs more than signing a compact

I turned up the volume on my laptop and sat in shock as I listened to a state Senator tell three highly educated presenters – attorneys, professors, CEOs – that they were beautiful, that Black kids were adorable, and that he did not believe there was any discrimination in Utah.

It’s been an interesting legislative session – from a new online format to a Paris Hilton appearance at the Capitol – and now we can add the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee hearing on S.B. 80, Utah Antidiscrimination Act Amendments to the mix. The bill itself is non-controversial enough: it clarifies that discrimination on the basis of natural hair type or style (e.g. afros, weaves, braids, twists) is, in fact, racial discrimination. Which is important, since for decades hair types and styles commonly associated with certain racial identities have been banned from the workplace or deemed ‘unprofessional’ – requiring women and men to treat their hair with toxic chemicals associated with dangerous health outcomes, purchase wigs, or take other drastic measures to change the nature of their natural hair. 

Furthermore, the bill sponsor invited guest presenters to discuss the importance of the amendments: law professors Erika George and Wendy Greene artfully spoke to the policy benefits of the proposed changes, bolstered by an on-the-ground testimonial from CEO Alyssha Dairsow. Though, as women of color in the workforce, I imagine they have a cache of personal stories on the topic, their arguments remained legal, economic, and professional – not to mention incisive and compelling. Yet the senatorial response to the bill was dominated by anecdotes about Black children at a supermarket donning cornrows and speculation about whether this was actually an issue that needed to be addressed in our state. 

Not even two months ago, then-Governor Gary Herbert unveiled the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion on the steps of the Capitol Building. A veritable who’s who of legislative, business, and community leaders have since signed on, including current Governor Spencer Cox and Senate President Stuart Adams. Signing signals a commitment to, among other things:

  1. Affirm that unraveling centuries of internalized and systemic racism requires bold anti-racist actions and policies right now.
  2. Acknowledge that racism exists and take purposeful steps to stop it.
  3. Advance solutions to racial ills by listening and creating policies that provide equal opportunity and access.

The Compact’s aims and the overwhelmingly positive response it received from our community heartened me, had me dreaming of a brighter and bolder Utah. Yet yesterday’s Committee hearing seemed to exhibit oppositional sentiments to the Compact’s affirmations, including: 

  1. Professions of doubt about whether systemic racism and discrimination was currently a problem, or if passing this bill was simply an attempt to “get on board with the other states around us.” 
  2. Disavowals of racism; as one committee member stated, “to me it almost looks like we are trying to [prevent] something that doesn’t exist.”
  3. A failure to recommend the bill positively. Two Senators voted in opposition, and with only two other Senators present to vote it didn’t get passed.

I hope the bill has an opportunity to be reconsidered, and I hope that we can each reconsider our lived commitment to anti-racism. Enacting change takes more work than signing compacts and optical allyship, but choosing to listen is a relatively easy first step. Like the Utah Compact states, “we must listen to and learn from each other, realizing that as we deepen our understanding of differences we can, in turn, be better understood.” Let’s listen to, learn from, and believe the experiences of our sisters and brothers of color when they tell us we have a problem.