We’ve all learned by now that “diversity”, at least used as a social desideratum, is a code word for “racial or sex diversity”, not simply for the dictionary definition of a “difference in character or quality”. When a university commits itself, for instance, to “improving diversity”, they are using the first definition rather than diversity in ideology, socioeconomic class, politics, or approaches to an academic subject.
Because the usage above is so common, and we all understand what it means, I have no big quarrel with it. But others do, including liberal people who would simply prefer more clarity in usage. An example of this is the interview of Asad Dhunna (founder of the U.K.-based consultancy firm, The Unmistakables) by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar in the Harvard Business Review. Two excerpts before I get to my own beef (it’s Grumpy Old Man Day). The interview is called “Stop saying ‘diverse’ when you mean something else.” The questions are in bold and Dhunnas’ answers are in plain type:
Let’s talk about the word diverse. Why is it so unhelpful?
We often hear companies say they want to hire diverse employees and create diverse cultures. But what does it really mean when someone says diverse? Are they talking about different genders? Sexualities? Ethnicities? [JAC: Note that ideas or viewpoints aren’t even considered here.]
For instance, BAME (Black, Asian, minority, and ethnic) is a popular acronym used in the U.K., and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) is similarly popular in the U.S. LGBTQ+ is popular worldwide. However, when you look closely, these acronyms simply refer to people who are not white, who are not cisgender, and who are not straight. They end up telling us what we’re not — as opposed to who we really are.
When we frame identities as what they are not, it can reinforce the narrative that these identities are a minority or less than the dominant identity. It creates a feeling of us versus them. . .
Right. It reminds me of a statistic I read in the report. It said around 27% of people feel excluded from conversations around D&I because of their identity. What mistakes are we making — and what should we NOT do?
Take the term “diversity hire.” Using that word without understanding what it means is a mistake. That word often comes with a loaded social connotation that this person has been hired to simply fill a quota. Even when it’s unintentional, it leads to unconscious biases about this person. Basically, it takes away from the skills, talents, and strengths that this individual brings to work. This kind of microaggression is also why marginalized groups continue to be absent or feel excluded from D&I conversations.
It’s also why being intentional and specific about language is so important. If you want to talk about police brutality against the Black community, say that. If you want to hire more women at work, say that. Your aim should be to center the experiences, struggles, and trauma of a particular community — and not yourself.
You can see that Dhunna is not some kind of bigot, but a “progressive.” Nevertheless, he favors linguistic precision as a way to improve society as well as to avoid stigmatizing people.
I agree with all that, and add the observation that “diversity” as a social goal never means “diversity of ideas or viewpoints”, which of course is what you want in a university. Indeed, equating gender or racial diversity with viewpoint diversity is also patronizing, for it assumes that all the members of one group share a commonality of views. It also leads to the notion that if, say, a black person diverges from a presumed “black” point of view, as does John McWhorter, he’s somehow transgressing. (See Ayanna Pressley’s remark about this issue.)
But here I am digressing, for these are points we’ve discussed before. What I object to is simply the use of “diverse” as an adjective referring to a single person, noun (e.g., “hire) or action. For example, “our department is looking to hire a diverse person”. But one person is not diverse except in the sense that they may do different things at different times—but of course that’s not what is meant. Another example, with the same ambiguity, is that “we’re doing a diverse search.”
Like Dhunna above, it would pay to be clear about these things. If you are looking for a woman, person of color, or member of a minority group as your “diverse” hire, say so! If you don’t, it seems as if you’re hiding something, or afraid or unable to specify exactly whom you’re looking for. (There may be legal considerations as well.) For all the reasons Dhunna specifies in his answer to the second question above, if your search or need involves a person falling into one or more identifiable groups, say so.
Now much of this may become moot when the Supreme Court gets rid of affirmative action this term, but we’ll still have the usage of “a diverse” person, which is objectionably ambiguous.