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Still from Dear White Peoplevia grantland.com

There is now a site that lets you ‘rent a minority’

The spoof company, created by ad exec Arwa Mahdawi, mocks society’s obsession with diversity and tokenism

With all the fuss that’s been fuelling the #OscarsSoWhite debates and anti-Beyoncé rallies, it feels like “diversity” is the hottest topic out there right now. Businesses – particularly across the tech, creative and media industries – are suddenly wising up to the problematic nature of their all-white workforces. You want to look like a decent, vibrant and interesting company? Then it’s probably best that you open up your doors to people with some ‘other’ experiences. Or, at the very least, make it look like you do.

One person keen to ridicule this growing culture of tokenism is Arwa Mahdawi. The gay, Palestinian-British ad executive (“three minorities for the price of one, so very good value for employers”) has vented her frustrations over the state of the western workforce – and has created her own spoof, on-demand business, called Rent-A-Minorityin retaliation. “(We are) designed for those oh-shit moments where you've realized your award show, corporate brochure, conference panel is entirely composed of white men,” the site’s manifesto reads. “Suddenly you're being called out on Twitter and you need to look not-racist and not-misogynist fast. Actually doing something meaningful to disrupt institutional inequality would be way too much work; so why not just Rent-A-Minority instead?” We caught up with Arwa to discuss the site, her experiences, and why she feels that “diversity” is now a negative word.

Tell me what made you want to start up ‘Rent-A-Minority’?

Arwa Mahdawi: I can't remember exactly what led me to register the domain. I've been frustrated by the superficial way in which companies treat diversity for a long time, but I think the trigger was when someone asked me if being a brown female was an advantage in advertising. I couldn't believe this guy – an intelligent straight white guy – would actually think that. And it sort of underlined just how much of a problem tokenism is – it results in a sort of double discrimination. Institutional inequality doesn't change and yet people think you got where you are because you're a minority. 

Tokenism and a lack of real diversity are still huge problems across most companies, but what industries do you think are the worst affected?

Arwa Mahdawi: Every industry is affected in different ways. I think it's a huge problem in advertising and media, because a lot of getting ahead in those industries is about who you know and there is a definite (white) boy's club. Technology is also an obvious one when it comes to a lack of women. 

“People seem to think that just because I'm an Arab I'm some sort of spokeswoman for the whole of the Muslim world about Isis. Which I'm not”

You include some funny ‘featured minorities’ on the site. What are the most frustrating stereotypes you tend to see?

Arwa Mahdawi: As an Arab, I'm always frustrated when people assume I'm Muslim (I'm not). Also, people seem to think that just because I'm an Arab I'm some sort of spokeswoman for the whole of the Muslim world about Isis. Which I'm not. Most frustrating is that people seem to assume that if you're a minority you've automatically got a chip on your shoulder. There's a sense that fighting for equal rights means having a chip on your shoulder. 

Do you think that the modern world is finally starting to acknowledge this issue? And if so, do you think change is coming?

Arwa Mahdawi: We've been acknowledging the issue for a long time. Talking about diversity doesn't help if you're not doing anything meaningful to change it. The Economist recently published an article titled “Diversity Fatigue” that says some HR managers are worried people are sick of talking about diversity. We need to lose the word ‘diversity’ because it's meaningless. We all live in diverse societies. Diversity is the new normal. It's reality. So we need to just talk about equality. 

What are your biggest concerns?

Arwa Mahdawi: I think that talking about diversity in the way we have been actually undermines diversity initiatives. Tokenism solves nothing. 

In your opinion, what needs to be done to stop tokenism and make a change?

Arwa Mahdawi: You have to start at the very beginning and provide equal access to education to everyone. The US is nearly the most wealth-unequal country in the entire world. “Diversity” isn't about giving a leg up to a few people of colour, and then patting yourself on the back – it's about increasing social mobility by closing socioeconomic gaps. I wrote an article about this several years ago. Of course, that's a long term thing. In the short term, we just need to make companies more accountable, and we need to stress the business case for a more diverse workforce. 

Check out Arwa’s Rent a Minority website here, or sign up and share your experiences here