Can a person, object, or action be “diverse”?

October 11, 2022 • 12:30 pm

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.

35 thoughts on “Can a person, object, or action be “diverse”?

  1. A “diverse person” would probably resemble what we used to call a “Renaissance Man.” You’d be able to put Jay in the accounting department one day, Customer Service the next, a week in the Mail Room, and a month as CEO before a turn repairing the furnace and teaching Latin in the lunchroom. And each one would benefit from clever improvements.

    We need more Diverse People.

  2. > Can a person, object, or action be “diverse”?

    No, absolutely not.

    There was a great post on the site (the site has been relocated, and it looks like the archives were deleted) where someone requested that a graphic designer create an image that was as diverse as possible. The designer added in people of various genders, races, abilities, ages, etc. The client kept refusing them. Finally, as a joke, the designer put a group of black women around a table – and the client loved it. People are now describing individuals as ‘diverse’ when they mean that they are members of multiple oppressed groups. Grrr…

    The term ‘intersectional’ could be useful – except people only use it to describe intersections of oppression, rather than intersections of all identities.

  3. our department is looking to hire a diverse person

    In that context “diverse” means “anybody except a white straight male”. White straight females may also be excluded.

    Addendum. I think BAME is going out of fashion in the UK. Somebody has found a credible argument that it is offensive to the people it is supposed to represent.

    1. > “diverse” means “anybody except a white straight male”

      Gay white males are being excluded, too, for not being sufficiently oppressed.

      > BAME is going out of fashion in the UK

      It’s fascinating to see people using the term ‘people of color’, not realizing that it is exclusive. ‘People of color’ are not ‘people of all colors’, but ‘people of non-white colors’. That immediately reduces the term to a negative/exclusionary definition, defining people by what they are not. And watching anyone twist the definition of ‘indigenous’ to exclude indigenous European populations is hilarious.

      1. Hilarious but also revealing. It seems that “non-white” is a meaningful category in almost all speaker’s heads, and learning by imitation what word is now used for an existing thing is how we learn language.

        Learning a brand-new concept is not impossible, but much harder — science classes are full of them.

        There’s a parallel in the sex/gender story. Notice how often articles posted here will slip and use the wrong one — articles supposedly buying the worldview that these are two separate concepts, articles published in magazines with copy-editors. Because (I claim) almost nobody actually looks at the world as containing two meaningful categories here. Instead they say gender as some kind of euphemism for sex, a way to indicate male/female-ness without including copulation.

  4. It ought to be that “Diverse” = different from me, or different from the norm (NB however, that is not a syllogism, and I am not implying I am normal!) In actual practice, “diverse” is used to denote a minority person, or even a majority one (like a female) if considered under-privileged. Confused yet? It ends up as a Humpty Dumpy word, where it means exactly what I want it to mean.

  5. Diverse means non-white, unless you are gay, lesbian, or trans, and also not conservative. What white means varies based on the target’s political views. In addition to Caucasian, white can mean Hispanic or Asian or even Black, apparently, if the person is to the right politically of the person making the determination. In that case the person is a rich kulak, sorry I mean not diverse.

    1. Uh oh. I just remembered that Multiple Personality Disorder is having a big comeback due to a combination of social media contagion and the belief that people cannot be mistaken about their identity(s.) Maybe someone who switches gender, race, orientations, age, and personalities depending on which “alter” comes to the surface will tick so many boxes that MPD individuals will become valuable.

      “Hi, my name is Bob, but when busy I become a clever gay Indian named Ishan, when playful I become a 6 year old black girl name Keesha, when in the mood I’m Daphne, a 50 year old divorcee — and when threatened I revert to a frightened but dangerous serial killer of undetermined parentage named Danny-O.”

      1. This thread has the best, snarkiest comments I have seen in a long time. Thank you Sastra – and everyone else!

      2. First they came for Bob, and I did not speak.
        Then they came for Keesha, and I did nothing.
        When they ca— oh, not yet? Sorry-
        Then they came for Daphne, and I did not speak.
        When — oh, one more?
        Then they came for [..looks at list … really?..]


        .. you know what, I’m goin’ down the pub. Who’s with me!?

  6. “Can a person, object, or action be “diverse”?”

    If it is one and only one of the approved colors on the Pride 2.0 flag, then yes.

    Otherwise, no.

    At least that’s as clear a picture I can figure out, given the rules of the rainbow plus color scheme and what “2.0” used to mean to old-timers.

  7. As you and others pointed out, diversity is a property of groups, not individuals. I suppose if someone really wanted to they could calculate genome-wide heterozygosity of an individual and call that their individual level of diversity. That’s my attempt at humor of course, doesn’t seem like a feasible or desirable goal to me.

  8. Of course “diverse” is applied to individuals these days. Language evolves. In a similar fashion, “Inclusion” with a capitol I) now means exclusion (e.g., of Asian applicants to Harvard), and “center” is now a verb. This evolution of language goes back to the use of “democratic” in the title of the German Democratic Republic, of fond memory. This polity pioneered other colorful terms, of which my favorite was its name for the Berlin border wall that kept its citizens from leaving: the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. We can expect further linguistic innovations of this sort from our DEI specialists in academia.

  9. I agree with others here that “diverse” has come to mean “not White”. In some situations it means not heterosexual, or not Asian.
    Certainly, I have heard individuals described as diverse, usually in the sense of an explanation for why a less qualified person was hired or promoted.

    1. Seems to me this was always a motte-and-bailey term for HR, who knew it was illegal to openly advertise that they would only hire people of some races.

      I wonder at what point the actual meaning, understood by writer and reader, will be admissible in court? In fact I imagine that judges would already have no difficulty in understanding an advert that said “diverse candidates need not apply” or something, were such an advert ever to be posted.

  10. ” . . . DEI specialists in academia.”

    As part of their job application, I think they should be able to successfully solve a few two-step algebra problems. Or show why (n/1) (1/n) = 1. (n not = 0) And maybe balance at least one chemical equation, something incredibly difficult, like O2 + 2H2 —> 2H2O.

    1. +1

      Gonna blurt this general idea out here :

      Part of the confusion I think originates with the drive to “be” something or someone when one grows up — without considering the drive for what one wants to _do_ when they grow up.

      There’s a quote out there that made me consider those different, almost opposing views, but I couldn’t verify the source.

      1. If what you want to be is described by an agent-noun, you are home free. Firefighter, engine-driver, God-botherer etc.

      2. > the drive to “be” something […] without considering the drive for what one wants to _do_

        I’ve found a fascinating use of constrained English entirely without the verb ‘be’: E-Prime. The developers want to avoid ambiguity and confusion about identity, group membership, etc. I occasionally try to use it as an exercise.

  11. Are all these difficulties cropping up because White Christians are not willing to live with others who are different?

    1. No, I think the difficulties are cropping up because the others who are different aren’t willing to live with white Christians. Or with Asians of any description.

  12. NASDAQ has a “Board Diversity Rule” for companies listed on that exchange ( It requires that a company “Have or explain why they do not have at least two diverse directors.” There’s a break for companies with five or fewer directors: they “can meet the diversity objective by including one diverse director.”

    Of course, they have to be pretty specific about the definition ( “Directors self-identify as diverse, and such self-identifications are to be reflected on the board diversity matrix (unless the disclosure is prohibited by home country law). Nasdaq is relying on the self-identification of directors in determining whether directors are diverse. Diverse means an individual who self-identifies as one or more of the following: Female, LGBTQ+, or an underrepresented individual based on national, racial, ethnic, indigenous, cultural, religious or linguistic identity in the country of the Company’s principal executive offices (as reported on the Company’s Form F-1, 10-K, 20-F or 40-F).”

    And also specific about what that means for US-based companies: “For companies incorporated in the U.S., “Underrepresented Minority” means an individual who self-identifies as one or more of the following: Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Two or More Races or Ethnicities. “Two or More Races or Ethnicities” means a person who identifies with more than one of the following categories: White (not of Hispanic or Latinx origin), Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.”

    Yes, Latinx.

      1. Or they just get off on telling people what to do, and whatever you’re doing isn’t good enough, and they want you to know they have the power to make your life miserable.

  13. A usage that always irks me is “minority” when used for a single person. (“XY is a minority”, “I am a minority”).

    1. Yes. I think this is one more example of people instinctively “carving nature at its joints” to find the concept, and then applying whatever new word appears to be in fashion to the concept. When HR starts using a different word when they want to say “non-white”, nobody thinks that looking this word up in the dictionary will help decode what they are saying.

      We are very very good at this game of seeing through new euphemisms, and picking up new words from context. The mathematician’s game of defining each new term, and using it only for that, is extremely un-natural for large hairless social apes.

  14. I think I’ve more commonly heard the term “diversity hire” rather than “diverse hire,” with “diversity” standing in for the unspecified policy of hiring non-white, non-straight, non-male, or gender non-conforming people.

    Liz Truss’ selection of cabinet members shows how ridiculous it is to pretend that “diverse” people by skin color, sexuality, etc. are *always* of the same political stripe.

    I grow tired of all this. Very tired.

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