A funny thing happens every time social pressure increases enough that people feel obliged to do something about it — it becomes commodified. The example I’ve been thinking of a lot lately is diversity indices and equality ratings, you know, those little testimonials that charitable organisations put together to provide information about corporations? Think ‘rated four out of five stars by…’ and you get a sense of what I mean.
On the surface, these things sure sound good. I do not trust corporations further than I can throw them, and I’m skeptical of the metrics they release to the public, because it’s easy to manipulate the data. Having a third party review an organisation should ostensibly provide insight into what conditions are really like, whether we’re talking demographic makeup, information on employee benefits, labour chain practices, or other elements of how a company does business.
The thing is, though, that the value of things like these is really contingent on the group involved. For example, I see a ton of people citing the Human Rights Campaign’s ‘Diversity Index’ when discussing various companies. For those not aware of this, the HRC is a festering pile of racist, transphobic garbage, focused on performatively normative queerness — it seems to be under the impression that marriage equality is the most important component of the fight for our rights, at least judging from how it allocates resources. It’s a trash organisation, even if some of the people who work for it are perfectly decent, which makes their index trash too.
Not just by association with a crappy organisation that should be unceremoniously tipped into a landfill and left there, but because the actual methodology is deeply flawed and unsound. Because it’s based on particular ways of thinking about the LGBQT community, about specific variations of what it means to be LGBQT, about specific aspirational goals that aren’t actually shared by all LGBQT people. Their ‘Equality Index’ is really predicated on a very narrow definition, and while it may focus on easy gimmes like inclusive health care benefits, it skips over larger issues with the companies it assesses.
Okay sure a company extends same-gender partner benefits but does the supply chain include practices that exploit LGBQT people? What’s the demographic distribution, cut not just by sexual orientation and gender but also things like race and class? If a company is five percent LGBQ, for example, and they’re all white, that’s…not really a marker of equality. I can see how the HRC might think so, given that a demographic makeup like that looks very similar to their organisation. Is the company fueling gentrification of historically LGBQT communities? The list goes on.
I pick on the HRC here because they’re low hanging fruit, but they’re not the only shitty charity with an ‘Equality Index’ that companies then use to rehabilitate their image. Having a good rating from groups like this — with big name recognition thanks to their history of diluting and watering down social justice to make it palatable, presenting the least offensive and overt examples of marginalised lives for the public — makes a company look good. Companies fight to meet the rubrics put forth by groups like this in the sense of following the letter of the law, not the spirit. The HRC and groups like it put their mainstream stamp of approval on corporations that use it to profit.
You see the same thing with Autism Speaks, and any number of high-profile charities that rake in money from credulous members of the public who think they are being ‘good allies,’ even over furious attempts and pushing back and educating from members of the community who are actually affected. If you’re queer in the right way, and you’re willing to perform as a safe, tame, muzzled gay, the HRC would love to have you, and you’re the vision of gayness they’re pushing on the public. If you’re not, or if you believe that LGBQT justice is pointless without an aggressively intersectional approach, or, you know, both, the organisation isn’t interested in your kind. If you’re an actual autistic who doesn’t like what Autism Speaks peddles, you’ll be shut down. The same holds true for other groups that claim to be the preeminent advocacy organisations for given marginalised groups.
There are a lot of infuriating things about this, but watching these groups enable corporate greed is perhaps particularly galling. Activism should not be a for-profit enterprise, and neither should advocacy. If these groups want to come up with a thoughtful, detailed social justice metric to apply to companies seeking certification, okay, but they’re not. They have a few points of interest determined by their pet issues so they can rubber stamp companies looking for a seal of approval. That doesn’t advance justice, it just becomes a profit-generating mechanism. Meanwhile, other groups struggle to access the same kind of donations and social profile.
If you want to know how a company does business and whether it’s ethical, you need to do a deep dig. If you chose to do so by looking at which charities rate that corporation and why, understand how they develop those ratings and what’s involved — as well as what’s left out. And understand who is doing the rating, rather than assuming that a charity must be bona fide simply by way of name recognition.
Image: Charity, Courtney, Flickr