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The meaning of diversity

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A group of young people are sitting in an outdoor space. There is a printed map on the floor and pieces of fabric decorates the background. A woman talks to the group.

We would like to encourage you to reflect on some of the challenges of using and working with the term ‘diversity’.

To provide a critical framework, we would like to start by using the words of African American Civil Rights leader Angela Davis, who reminds us that we shouldn’t simply:

“diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference.”
In her seminal essay The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized, British researcher Sumaya Kassim has pointed out that:
“when projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’.”

The following are examples of how some scholars and practitioners examine diversity under a critical lens:

  • Diversity invokes difference but it does not necessarily evoke commitment to action or redistributive justice (Rosemary Deem and Jenny Ozga)
  • Diversity does not appeal so powerfully to our sense of social justice (Yvonne Benschop)
  • Diversity can be a sign of the lack of commitment to change, it might allow organizations to conceal the operation of systemic inequalities (Sara Ahmed)
  • Diversity can be a coping mechanism for dealing with conflicting heterogeneity (Himani Bannerji)
  • Diversity can be used a technique by which liberal multiculturalism manages differences by managing its most troublesome constituents (Augie Fleras)

We would like to use the analogy of ‘diversity as a vaccine’, which some institutions use to bring in some different voices that are challenging the status quo. This allows organizations to learn how to control this difference and go back to normal or continue doing things the same way.

The lack of diversity in institutions is only one part of the problem. The main issue is the historical inequities that have cemented an unequal distribution of power in institutions. A better solution to a lack of diversity can be found when historically marginalized voices are prioritized in decision making and a fairer and more equitable redistribution of power is sought. For this to happen, institutions must work hard to identify inequalities and commit to eliminating them.

In the comments section, please help us identify at least two other challenges of working with diversity and provide possible solutions for addressing them.

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