‘Diversity’ and False Equivalencies

I was talking to a colleague a little while ago, early-morning coffee-soaked small talk as we waited for a class to start. She was describing a conversation she had with another group of students, and was mentioning what she felt as a need for more intellectual diversity among students at our school. She argued that there are a lot of resources and attention to other kinds of diversity, but not enough space and acceptance for different kinds of ideas. Her example was how within the group she had been speaking to, anyone who mentioned that they planned on going into finance or consulting were immediately attacked for that choice. Not very accepting at all, she said.
I nodded along, remembering times I had personally jumped to judgments about friends and acquaintances I knew who had taken jobs as bankers and consultants. This wasn’t an argument I particularly wanted to get into, and anyway, I wasn’t quite able to articulate what didn’t sit well with me in what she had said. Eiither way, our class was starting, so we picked up our coffees and our half-eaten breakfasts and went into the lecture hall.
What has stuck with me from that conversation, however, is not our differing opinions on the value of that kind of work, but rather the different meanings that the word ‘diversity’ has taken on. While it seems like corporations, universities, and most other insitutions are using a commitment to ‘diversity’ as a stand-in for a commitment to equity and social justice, how that word is used implies a pretty misguided approach to achieving real equity. What ‘diversity’ means in most of these contexts seems to be ‘the presence of difference’. Just having lots of people with different backgrounds and identities all together – whether the differences are on lines of race, gender, faith, country of origin or anything else – is enough (there is another version of ‘diversity’ in which the word ‘diverse’ is just code for ‘poor’ or ‘black’, which is problematic for a set of other reasons I’m not getting into here). In a lot of places, that’s expanded beyond these ‘traditional’ identity categories into things like, as my colleague advocated, diversity of thinking styles, diversity of ideas, diversity of personalities. In this world, diversity = differences, and differences = good.
To some degree, I think this is great. I’m all for inclusion of multiple voices and perspectives experiences. The problem is when we take diversity to be the end point. It’s not: it’s the beginning. It’s not enough that we have different voices if we don’t acknowledge the inequalities that exist between these voices and the differences in power that these voices have. It’s not enough to just say that we’re going to have different perspectives represented in a space if those perspectives are valued differently at every turn. Once those differences are present, it then becomes crucial that that space is safe for all those in it and that those perspectives that go too often go ignored are paid particular attention.
Not acknowledging these inequalities also leads to what I see as a false equivalence between types of diversity. Sure, it’s great to have different personality types represented in a space, and sure some personality types may be valued over others in certain cultural contexts, but that is simply not the same as diversity that is aimed at correcting for centuries of institutionalized oppression of particular marginalized groups (that is not to say that personality and perceptions of personality doesn’t intersect with these other identities: see this great article from ‘Black Girl Dangerous’ for some really interesting thoughts on that). Or, returning to the conversation that started this whole thing, it’s fine to want to have a space in which different opposing ideas can be maintained, but to say that that is in some way equivalent to ‘other types’ of diversity simply doesn’t acknowledge the imbalances in power that drive the need for that diversity to begin with (especially when the supposedly ‘underrepresented’ group is those interested in finance and consulting).
What it comes down to is that we need to remember why we value ‘diversity’ in the first place. We want – need – diversity not just so that we can have difference for difference’s sake. We need diversity to create spaces for voices that are otherwise not heard. Diversity should be a tool to challenge systems that silence the perspectives and experiences of particular individuals and communities: removed from that purpose, it becomes an easy way out rather than a path towards actual change.
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