The revenge of the lehenga or When tokenistic diversity in products damages the business reputation

Paws of different colours - blue, green, red, yellow – on a wood background. Among them, there is a black pawn.
Image from Pixabay by MetsikGarden.

(4 min read)

When business leaders learn that I’m an inclusion strategist, most of them tell me about their diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives in the workplace: gender pay gap report, employee resource groups, diversity audits…

Then, I ask them what are they doing about the diversity of their customers. Yes, you can come up with 4-6 versions of the “ideal” customer and hope for the best but the reality is that humans are much more complex and their situation and environment are dynamic, not static. How are they authentically including that diversity of experiences in their products, services, marketing, and sales?

The HBO TV series “And Just Like That…,” a reboot of “Sex and the City,” is a good reminder of what happens when you play the “diversity” card in your products whilst patronizing your customers.

Last weekend, whilst listening to a business British podcast, I got an advertisement for “And Just Like That…”. They mentioned that Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda – from the original cast – were back, adding “they have brought with them some fabulous faces. The series focuses on diversity and inclusion”.

What could go wrong?

The epic failure of their “Diwali” episode, for instance. Diwali is a festival of lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs.

For example, during the episode, the protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, keeps referring to the lehenga, a three-piece garment worn at Indian weddings and celebrations, like a sari, an uncut piece of fabric that’s wrapped around the body and draped over a shoulder. By the way, the incident is now been called the sari-gate.

And the lehenga/sari mistake is not the only one. As Arushi Sinha writes in this article in Vogue, there was so much more to unpack!

Like the need to portray Indian parents as obsessed with marriage. Or to reinforce the idea that the role of non-White characters in a story is to gently educate White protagonists that appear to have lived isolated on top of a mountain rather than in Manhattan.

And the Diwali disaster was not an exception in his reboot.

As Aisha Harris reflects in this NPR article, the series’ attempt to sprinkle diversity by “matching” the leading characters to “Diversity Girlfriends” and queer characters feels tokenistic, like they only exist to shepherd our 3 heroines out there, where non-White humans and non-binary people exist…

Inclusion is a deliberate choice

One wonders, if HBO wanted to make diversity and inclusion the focus of this reboot, couldn’t they pay experts to advise on Diwali, Indian culture, and the overall soundness of the story plot and dialogue?

Carrie’s lehenga comes from Falguni Shane Peacock. They are luxury couture designers accredited for taking Indian fashion to Hollywood circuits, with their glamorous and spectacular designs. And from their website, it’s clear they do know that a lehenga is not a sari.

So, HBO did make the effort to find luxury designers to dress Carrie with a couture lehenga… What happened then?

That HBO patronized ALL their audience

1.- Their audience knowledgeable about Diwali and Indian culture: They assumed that they either wouldn’t mind or simply didn’t exist. Or even worst, that even if they did care and feel offended, they’d shut up and suck it up.

2.- Everybody else: Because by deliberately using sari as general-purpose word to describe any piece of clothing for Indian women and relying on clichés, HBO assumed that their audience needed those “crutches” to engage with the plot about Diwali. Basically, HBO didn’t think that their viewers would appreciate multi-dimensional non-White characters or dispelling some stereotypes.

CONCLUSION: Using performative diversity in your products will damage your business reputation real fast.

Before I go

For reflection

The myth of bringing your full, authentic self to work. In this excellent TED talk, Jodi-Ann Burey shares everyday examples demonstrating why “bringing yourself to work” is not equally valued – and appreciated – from all employees. Instead, for people belonging to underrepresented groups, “coming as you are” can lead to backlash and fewer opportunities.

She also talks about DARVO, a 3-step framework that refers to the chain of reactions a perpetrator of wrongdoing may display when confronted with their behaviour. DARVO is the acronym for Deny, Attack, and Reverse the Victim with the Offender.

PS. Don’t watch this talk if you want to remain within your comfort zone in the workplace.

TED talk: The myth of bringing your full, authentic self to work by Jodi-Anne Burley

A boost of energy

How reverse mentorship can help create better leaders. I’m both a mentor and a mentee and I get as much value from my mentors as from my mentees. That’s why I loved this 5 minute video where Patrice Gordon shares her experience reverse mentoring CEO Craig Kreeger, only one year into her career at Virgin Atlantic. Patrice, a Black woman, mentored Craig on how to build a more inclusive culture at the company. In the video, she shares 6 tips to make reverse-mentoring a success!

News from me

On 8th February, I discussed with Tom McCallum what’s next for diversity and inclusion. To give you a sense of why I’m so chuffed, previous interviewees include Debbie Forster MBE, co-founder and CEO for the Tech Talent Charter!

Among other topics, we discussed:

  • How companies will continue to lose money and taint their reputation by disregarding diversity and inclusion in marketing, sales, products, services, and procurement.
  • My motto “Inclusion is a practice”.
  • Why allyship won’t fix diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
  • What we can do instead!

You can watch our 30-min conversation here.


Inclusion is a practice, not a certificate.

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