Why I Don’t Identify As Diverse

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An invitation went out across the country to education leaders titled, “Leading While Diverse: A new community for those who identify as Diverse,” but how does one identify as diverse? Although the initiative and sentiment are appreciated, the language is odd, inaccurate and too frequently used.

Despite the rapidly shifting demographics, growing multinationalism, and the growth of career paths devoted to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, as a society we continue to lack diversity literacy and appear light years away from developing DEI fluency as evidenced by this misstep of DEI marketing. Similarly, another DEI faux pas occurs when women’s leadership and professional development programs attempt to be inclusive yet frequently use the phrase, ‘women and women of color.’ What gives? In the DEI work space, words matter.

Both are examples of attempts to demonstrate diversity readiness while actually showing a lack of diversity literacy and insufficient cultural competence. Diverse is an adjective that describes a group or community, but it is not descriptive of an individual. Many diversity advocates use it however as an unfortunate DEI shortcut, when it would be more appropriate to refer to an individual as being a member of a historically marginalized and excluded group.

One often used alternative, underrepresented, has its own set of challenges given the focus on numbers rather than access to power, authority and influence. Underrepresented distracts from the reality that leaders have and continue to make choices that result in this ongoing state of lacking representation for marginalized individuals, as discussed in a recent essay in the Harvard Business Review.

The ‘women and women of color’ phrase implicitly centers and privileges white women and leaves all other women as secondary despite their mention. To promote greater inclusivity, perhaps a better strategy would be to simply use the phrase, diverse women instead. Although it is critical to continue highlighting the many ways that women’s experiences differ by other dimensions of their identities beyond gender, we have to be mindful that there remains very real historical and contemporary complexity involved in women’s experiences even when looking at a single aspect of identity such as race. The term Women of Color can inadvertently suppress our understanding and full appreciation of the unique experiences of specific communities of women subsumed under that title.

For those deeply embedded in the DEI professional community, there are discussions around the term People of Color (POC) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). The latter seeks to call attention to the legacy of white supremacy and anti-Black racism and hate that has impacted the Black and Indigenous communities while acknowledging that the racial and ethnic violence enacted upon those groups has in many ways served as a foundation and playbook for the discrimination, harassment and violence directed towards other communities of color. However, even that term BIPOC does not explicitly include those of Asian origin who also continue to encounter hate and violence inflicted upon their communities, especially over the last 3 years.

So how do we become more diversity literate? One practice is to follow the lead of those with whom we are engaging. Simply respect how they identify themselves and mirror that.

Another strategy is to read a greater diversity of writers of fiction, non-fiction, etc . How do those authors refer to themselves and to other members of their groups? Consider when, how, and why authors who appear to represent a community might identify and self-identify differently. Is it generational? Setting or context?

It is also essential to recognize that language evolves and is often geographically and politically situated. For example, consider the geographical, political, and generational nuances of the terms Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, LatinX, and most recently Latine. Gender identity is equally complex as is the language around disability.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, DEI literacy and hopefully fluency demands practice, so be open to learning from others outside of your group, be willing to engage, make mistakes, and gratefully accept feedback when offered with a vow to not make the same mistake twice.



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