Dave Chappelle: Diversity is NOT a Zero-Sum Game


Key Takeaways:

  • Dave Chappelle recently made zero-sum comments about diversity in his latest comedy special
  • Zero-sum thinking can result in people not supporting equity in leadership
  • It is important to think about framing diversity as a win for all and not zero-sum


In October of 2021, Dave Chappelle released a stand-up comedy special on Netflix called “The Closer.”  Since its release, a firestorm of criticism has ensued, calling it transphobic and homophobic among other complaints.  Many have spoken about, so I will not repeat the intelligent and insightful arguments of others.  Instead, I want to focus on one line in particular from the show – and discuss the implications this type of thinking can have on leadership.

At one point in his show, Chappelle uses the story of rapper DaBaby to make a point about the tone of our country regarding LGBTQ issues.  In 2019, DaBaby admitted to shooting and killing a Black man (in self-defense), for which Chappelle points out DaBaby’s career did not suffer.  However, DaBaby has been under fire this year for a series of homophobic remarks he made – which Chappelle points out has hurt DaBaby’s career.  Commenting on the seeming inequity of this, Chappelle says “Do you see where I’m going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill an (expletive), but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”

In this statement, Chappelle seems to be suggesting that our society currently finds homophobia to be worse than racism and murder.  My interpretation of this situation is different, though: pitting homophobia and racism against each other suggests there can only be one “winner” and one “loser.”  But I don’t agree; diversity is not a zero-sum game.  The takeaway of this story should not be “we should care less about homophobia” but instead “we should care more about racism in addition to caring about homophobia.”

What do I mean by a zero-sum game?  Brown and Jacoby-Senghor spoke about this topic in a recent study[1].  A zero-sum mentality refers to inherently seeing gains made by one group as a loss for another group.  This belief can be especially prevalent when people talk about diversity; in their study, they found that people automatically started thinking this way whenever an initiative was framed as “diversity” – even in situations when it was explicitly discussed how both minority and majority individuals could benefit!

How does this connect to leadership?  Ruthig and colleagues conducted a study that looked at the pernicious effects zero-sum thinking can have on leadership[2].  Specifically, they measured people’s zero-sum mentality and then later measured how supportive they were for women in leadership positions.  What they found was that having a zero-sum mentality resulted in people not endorsing the women for leadership positions.  This effect occurred regardless of the person’s gender; both men and women who thought in zero-sum terms preferred men over women as leaders.

Sadly, there are times when diversity initiatives are framed (or perceived) as zero-sum games.  But it doesn’t need to be this way!  As can be seen, this way of thinking can lead to gender inequity in leadership, which is a huge problem in organizations already.

As leaders, it’s important to frame diversity as a win-win for all.  You need to convey this to your followers – and you need to believe it yourself.  Diversity is not a burden or a way to “punish” one group in order to reward another.  Instead, diversity can be a way of helping everyone succeed.  Changing your mindset to think this way can go a long way to achieving it!

[1] Brown, N. D., & Jacoby-Senghor, D. S. (2021). Majority members misperceive even “win-win” diversity policies as unbeneficial to them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[2] Ruthig, J. C., Kehn, A., Fisher, W. N., & Carstens Namie, E. M. (2020). Consequences of a zero-sum perspective of gender status: Predicting later discrimination against men and women in collaborative and leadership roles. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force – Senior Airman Tom Brading

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November 30, 2021 at 11:28 pm
Noim ahmed

Nice post


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.