Diversity: Why it is particularly hard to talk about in EA

Please note that this article is not a theory to solve all problems of inclusion. Nor do I think that my views expressed here are a sufficient means to inclusion & diversity, simply that representation is a necessary step. I am hesitant to publish this article because of it's sensitive nature.
There have been a series of discussions on EA forums about representation of minorities and marginalized groups. I will be writing several posts about this topic.

There has been a lot of chatter around the EA forums lately about being welcoming, inclusive, feminist, diversity etc, etc, etc. But recently I got to have a brief encounter with someone in my EA group that brought to light some of the reasons this is particularly odd topic for EA.

I believe that many people take it as a matter of course, or have been trained to STFU, that diversity is a Good and Virtuous aim. A lot of Effective Altruists have come to the community through things like LessWrong & Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) which promote rationality and clearer more logical thinking. Which makes total sense! EAs are trying to make rational, deliberate choices around the best way to improve the world. And as J pointed out, EA is an easy way to feel like you are applying the rationality skills you learn.

So to be involved in the EA movement to some extent you touch on, if not get wrapped up in, the rationality movement. One thing I've noticed hanging out with a bunch of rationalists is that they have a desire, and have trained themselves, to question and analyze ideas, to poke at them and follow them to some sort of conclusion. All ideas. Particularly ones we take as a matter of course.

Enter diversity.


Have I made you uncomfortable yet?


No? Let me explain with my experience referenced above. During our last meet-up, and having been thinking about diversity and inclusion in relation to EA I looked around the room. Not too bad. We have several Latinos, almost a 50/50 split of women, several Asian members, and a few people who would identify as Queer. Good representation of Seattle demographics except... oh wait. We're all white.

I don't mean Caucasian, I mean the physical complexion of the group was fairly uniform and fairly... fair. Part of this undeniably is because we live in the PNW and don't know what sunshine is. But mostly it is because we just didn't have anyone of a darker complexion in the room. Beyond that everyone was college educated and a programer (myself excluded [more to come on that later]).

After the meeting had concluded and there were a few of us left chatting, I brought this up. Another member paused, looked at me and asked why I thought it would be of benefit to the group to have or recruit members who are specifically of a different complexion. It took me a few small moments to collect myself and remember the social context of the people I was with - I point you back to paragraphs 2 & 3. She asked not out of internalized racism but out of a desire to test my thinking and the rationality of my argument.

My response followed basically this premise:

People of different physical attributes experience the world differently. Both because of the potential prejudice they face, and due to historical systemic inequality. Having disparate life experiences creates different ways of looking and understanding the world which informs new ways of thinking. EA could benefit and be strengthened by incorporating and being cognizant of various viewpoints and ways of understanding.

This seems sort of logical to me. But we aren't going for logical, we are going for rational so..... link, link, study, study, study, findings, and findings. As most of the data in the articles listed show, it is not enough to have diversity for diversity's sake; to improve performance and potential of a group it is important to have a diversity of experiences and perspective. It seems unlikely that we will have a diverse number of perspectives with a group that is generally homogenous in terms of outward racial identifiers.

For a wonderful example of how this argument can be problematic see this article by Nonprofit with Balls (whom I love).

This member and I also briefly discussed color being a 'stand in' word or identifier for economic differences. And while I think these can be related, I also think they are distinct. Again more on that later.

What I failed to mention that day and what I think slips so many people's minds is also a very simple truth: those that benefit from the most effective charities, the world's ultra poor, are disproportionately people of color. And how can we be a movement that serves this demographic, and clearly states our goal is to avoid white knighting if we can't recruit people of color?