February 15th, 2016
I have been writing about moving diversity and inclusion work forward and the foundational significance of language. Language itself can be paradigm shifting, it is one of our most powerful, and also one of our most commonly overlooked interventions.
If you are going to move this work forward, if you are serious about providing a more inclusive experience for employees and other stakeholders, you must first build a foundation of clear, concise, and consistent language and logic. The very first stone in that foundation is the word diversity.
People use this word in a lot of interesting ways. It can mean different things to different people, but within the context of your organization, having a common language is very important. It is hard for conversations to be meaningful and actionable without it.
At the beginning of a few recent workshops I asked people to write down a 1 or 2 word definition of what diversity means. Each of these answers showed up at least once in a hundred responses, several of them showed up more than once and a few showed up numerous times:
prejudice and discrimination
Not really on the same page, are we?
I even know folks who don’t use the word any more. HR leaders, managers, even some that are actively involved in D&I efforts. “Generates too much resistance, Joe. Too much negativity.” I get it, I do. I have felt and seen and heard that resistance and early in my career I thought about using different language as well. Do what works for you, but I think that we should not sacrifice language simply because it provokes some resistance. It’s a good word.
The word diversity does not generate resistance because there is anything fundamentally wrong with the word or what it means, in fact there are few things more inherent and important to the human experience than difference, it generates resistance because we have failed to take care of it.
You don’t have to use the word, but you probably should. You do not have to use my definition, but you probably should.
The word means difference. That is what it means. I have been writing and saying that for a long time now and I am still a little surprised by the response that I get. I have been told it is a very political thing to say. I can remember when a leader in this field who I have tremendous respect for, walked out of a conversation we were having after I made the statement “diversity means difference, and difference takes many forms.”
I have also been accused of “making diversity white,” for suggesting that diversity means difference. I have been accused of diluting diversity or letting folks off the hook. I don’t get it. Here is the thing, when I look the word up in the dictionary I see that it means difference, and I have found no logical reason to use it differently.
I am not trying to make diversity a particular color, and I am not trying to let anyone off the hook. I am not trying to say that all kinds of difference are the same, and I am not at all suggesting, (as a straight, white, midde-class, dude), that we should pay any less attention to race or gender or any other type of diversity that the word more commonly calls to mind. I think that we obviously have a whole bunch of work to do around race in this country, I think we obviously have a whole bunch of work to do around gender. I also think that one of the things that commonly undermines our attempts to talk about race and gender is the fact that we do not understand difference and how it impacts us as human beings.
And its impact is significant. Let me put it this way, I believe that difference is as integral and impactful to the human experience as gravity is to life on earth. More about that later.
If the definition of the word is difference, I do not see the need to use it in any other way. If you want to talk about issues related to race (and there is a lot to talk about), we already have a word for that. If you want to talk about issues related to gender (and there is a lot to talk about), we already have a word for that.
Using diversity as code for something more specific makes already difficult conversations unnecessarily more difficult. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Inclusion is, on a very fundamental level, about telling the truth to each other and in this work we must prioritize clear and concise language every step of the way.
What does diversity mean for your organization? And why?
Be good to each other.