When the city of Seattle hired Joshua Diemert in 2013, his title was “program intake representative,” and his job was to connect city residents to public resources. He quit after nine years, convinced he could no longer work in an office he says exposed him to widespread racial harassment and discrimination.
“It’s the culture of the workplace, the way people talk to you,” says Diemert Reason. “You can’t run away from it.” In November 2022, he filed suit, alleging that the city’s racially hostile work environment harmed his mental and physical health.
What makes his situation unusual among cases of racial discrimination is that Diemert is white. His tormentors, he claims, were motivated by so-called anti-racist training sponsored by the city government’s Racial and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI).
“The city of Seattle believes that racial representation is most important and they believe that people should not be judged by their individuality or individual actions, they should be judged by their collective race,” says Diemert. “In fact, they say that if you judge people by individuality, it was actually a tool of white supremacy used to oppress people of color.”
The environment Diemert describes is almost too toxic and oppressive to believe; in his description, the RSJI program in Seattle sounds like a conservative nightmare about a progressive workplace—something that would be brutally parodied South Park or Portlandia. But his complaint is well supported by hard evidence: actual copies of documents from the bizarre anti-racism training the city uses. In fact, these documents can still be found on the RSJI city website.
The training is based on the highly controversial and much-criticized work of Tema Okun, a consultant who identifies perfectionism, timeliness, a sense of urgency and writing things down as aspects of “white supremacy culture.” (Okun is white.) Okun has had a significant impact on the diversity and equity industry, and these ideas often appear in training materials for educational seminars. A similar piece by author Judith Katz—also a white woman—previously appeared on the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Okun recently interviewed The InterceptRyan Grim, who has reported extensively on the dysfunction within progressive organizations. She expressed deep concern about the use of weapons in her work and asked Grim to publish an updated version in which she qualified many of her original claims.
“It became clear to me that a lot of people are abusing it,” she said.
The City of Seattle can offer a case study of such abuse.
According to Diemert, he was reprimanded by his superior for refusing to step down and give his job to a person of color. He says he was asked, “What could a straight white male possibly offer our department?” And he says he was often forced to participate in RSJI training, which included offensive games and activities designed to address his alleged complicity in white supremacy.
“Repeatedly in training I was forced to do things like play privileged bingo or stand up in front of everyone and place myself on the racist continuum,” he says.
Refusal to participate was not an option: this was labeled “white silence”, a significant transgression. Opposition to the agenda was even worse, of course.
“If I disagreed or offered a different opinion, I was told I had cognitive dissonance, and my defensive position was proof that I was a racist white racist,” he says.
The explicit mission of RSJI was to introduce racial issues into the work of the government. One document summarizing the priorities of the initiative is listed daltonism, not as a positive thing, but as an obstacle to be overcome. Another described colorblindness as “whiteness-centering.”
“Institutionalizing racial equity tools has become our most urgent priority because we know that the impacts of racial inequality cannot be assessed or addressed without disrupting the color-blind ways in which departments make decisions.”
Diemert says his former colleagues took this mission very seriously. In fact, he found that one colleague had rejected a qualified white man from a public assistance program precisely because of his race.
“I asked her, well, this doesn’t make sense to me,” he recalled. “Why did you deny this person? And she said, well, because they have white privilege.”
Diemert says he reported the matter to his superior – what he believed to be blatant racial discrimination – but nothing was done about it.
A similar philosophy guided the city’s hiring practices. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and layoffs became necessary, supervisors openly discussed strategies to start working with white employees, using RSJI as an excuse.
Trainings were more like fights. At one workshop, “Undoing Institutional Racism,” white people were described as devils and cannibals with racism in their DNA, according to Diemert. Another session, “Internalized Racial Superiority,” was aimed specifically at white and white-identifying employees.
On December 23, 2020, Diemert filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying that the principles of RSJI create a racially hostile and discriminatory workplace. The city’s human resources department investigated the complaint. Diemert was not particularly surprised when the chief investigator cleared the city of any wrongdoing, since he himself was part of an entity operating under the RSJI banner.
Diemert’s lawsuit, which was amended last month to include additional allegations that Seattle violated local and state law, alleges the city has pervasively violated his constitutional rights. The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a libertarian public interest law firm, is representing him.
“The freedom to be treated with dignity and to be treated as an individual regardless of skin color is something that the Pacific Legal Foundation absolutely protects and advocates,” says PLF attorney Andrew Quinio. “And that’s why we took Joshua’s case.”
The city of Seattle did not respond to a request for comment.
“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” is the mantra of a training module of sorts that purports to eliminate racism in schools, businesses and government. Related concerns about “critical race theory”—a not-always-well-defined concept often lumped together with the work of consultants like Okun—have become central to Republican Party campaigns against alleged political indoctrination in K-12 education, government contracts, and corporate America.
Some liberals argue that these concerns are overblown and correctly point out that GOP efforts to clean up critical race theory are often as confusing as the concept itself. Even the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, known for his anti-vigilance criticism, advised against tries to forbid teaching concepts from critical race theory in schools.
But it should not be controversial to state that the government should not practice racial discrimination, especially in the name of promoting anti-racism. And whatever the initial intent, Okun’s work on a culture of white supremacy has clearly hurt many workplaces — something that hasn’t escaped her notice.
Her work, she insisted, “was put to good use by many, many people.” But she admits that wasn’t always the case. “I heard a story about a young white man here, who went after a black woman who was his superior with a list,” she told The Intercept. “I’ve heard of young white men attacking both white bosses and bosses of people of color. I’ve heard of blacks, natives and employees of color going against white bosses. So [the work] it was abused by lots and lots of people.”