Shifting the Language of Diversity and Inclusion

Shifting the Language of

Diversity and Inclusion  

 A few months ago, I was involved in a conversation to review the goals and vision of an institution. As we reviewed, I was struck by what was so obviously missing. I was not surprised by what was listed, of course; values of respect, excellence, learning, integrity, and collaboration all seem to fit as reasonable expectations for any successful institution. However, as a space that seemed to consistently struggle with creating an inclusive climate, I was surprised that neither diversity or inclusion were explicitly listed as a value or goal to attain. I suppose I should not have been surprised, given that it was fairly obvious that these ideas did not seem to be valued on an institutional level.  And so, I inquired, arguing that when it comes to creating an inclusive environment, it must be intentional and explicitly stated. There can be no intentionality and measurement if the aim is not explicit. Otherwise, the institution behaves in a colorblind fashion, maintaining the status quo. How do we measure what we do not name? How do we hold institutions and the people within those institutions accountable for things we don't make explicit? 

Of course, language is extremely important and powerful for creating social change. The Sapir Whorf Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis suggests that as we think in language, language has the ability to limit us. If we only have one word for snow, when we see snow, we cannot distinguish between fluffy snow, rain-like snow, snow that falls straight down, or that falls on an angle. We have only snow. If we only have one word for blue, teal, aquamarine, and navy all merge into blue. Unfortunately, if we only use the colorblind language of respect and do not explicitly state and acknowledge the power of racial, gendered, and cis hierarchies, when we see an injustice or experience micro aggressions, we will not see it as an institutional issue, but a personal respect issue. In this way, language is powerful and shifts the responsibility from the personal to the institution. It is therefore the duty of the institution to name the institutional inequities that exist. 

On both the macro (societal) and micro (individual) levels, language determines and defines what we hope to obtain. Our visions for ourselves and humanity are defined through language. When we say what our visions and values are, this becomes our focus and aim. Unfortunately, there are those who claim to be working toward social justice, but their goals and values are defined in ways that protect privilege and the status quo. In some ways, the language used reflect values that are paternalistic and protect power structures and hierarchies that exist.  

One of the most commonly used examples and descriptions used within Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work is the use of the dance example to explain the difference between diversity and inclusion. The teacher/trainer explains it this way, "Diversity means being invited to the dance and inclusion means being asked to dance while there." I have admittedly used this example before, even as I am aware of the problematic nature or this example. When using this example, in both diversity and inclusion, there is a power structure that is maintained. In other words, in this example, inclusion implies that the marginalized groups must still wait for permission from those with the power to "ask." I tend to supplement this example with my own; "diversity is being visible in the room where decisions are made. Inclusion means being seated at the table where the decisions are made and the ideas, values, concerns, and perspectives are heard and valued. Diversity implies presence; inclusion implies and demands agency and ownership. Indeed, when we think about how this relates to institutions and organizations, it is clear to see why the distinction is a necessary one to make. Simply advocating for diversity does very little at creating a safe and inclusive environment. It is to the benefit of all within the institution to actually work toward inclusion rather than diversity.  

Moving from an institutional level to the societal, the same critique may be extended to the distinction between assimilation and pluralism. And while assimilation has historically been praised and encouraged, it is similar to being asked to dance while there. This does not create an equitable society, only visibility of continually marginalized, and in some cases silenced groups.   

So, what does pluralism and inclusion look like? To discuss this, we must consider who has power. Indeed, in every society, people who experience marginalization lack power and access to recourses, and in many cases lack power and agency in many important aspects of their own lives. Consider this – public schooling is in theory free to all in this society. However, what happens in schools depends in large part on the social class of the surrounding community. Therefore, for those who lack access to resources, the agency to direct their educational experiences is lacking. The hidden curriculum and the formal curriculum both deny those who lack economic resources to determine their own lives and experiences, having long term effects. Can we call this inclusion? Is this full access to the dance? It is most certainly not a valued seat at the table of decision making. In this regard, we expect that students assimilate into the school culture and provide diversity. This does not, however imply pluralism and inclusion.  

This example is a fairly simple one. School districts and institutions of higher education recognize this pattern. One method of combatting this lack of inclusive climate has been discussions of equality. If we can guarantee equality, then we can have full inclusion. However, this logic is similarly flawed. Again, discussions of equality encourage and implicitly acknowledge a power relationship. By definition, equality is the state of being equal in status, rights, and opportunities. Equality is symbolic. However, the way in which equality has been applied is this – everyone receives an equal share. For those with privilege and access, it is frequently argued that advocating for equality is fair and just. After all, equality does not disrupt the status quo and does not require that the society change. Equality is blind. However, if one group is marginalized, does not equality also maintain the existing power structure?  

But the pursuit of social justice demands equity. Equity is not blind but sees both disadvantage and privilege and provides accordingly. Equity is defined as the state of being fair. In other words, while equality demands that people receive the same recourses or opportunities, equity is need based. The way I think of it is this – equality is about the power holder, divvying up resources equally. Equity is about the need. This distinction shifts the power relationship from those who have to those who need.  

As a society, as social justice workers, those of us concerned with social justice, have to decide what type of world we desire to live in. Do we want a world of equality, assimilation, and diversity? Or would we rather have a world of equity, pluralism, and inclusion? If we want the latter, we have an obligation to name it. It will admittedly require a greater level of work and commitment as we will then be charged with holding institutions and societies accountable. But this is the work and it is revolutionary.