A new study by the University of Minnesota’s sociology department say that though Americans are optimistic about the word “diversity,” it is often used as a blanket to cover their true feelings about the “R” word — race. The respondent’s biggest fear, according to the study, is that America is transforming into a multicultural nation overnight. The researchers say American diversity talk is sort of a ‘happy talk,’” an upbeat language that is now part of everyday conversation.
“The topic of race lies outside of the realm of polite conversation,” says Joyce Bell, a graduate student who co-authored the study with associate sociology professor Dr. Doug Hartmann. “Everyone, regardless of their race, political affiliation and even rhetorical ability, had real trouble talking about the inequities and injustices that typically accompany diversity in the United States.”
The study is based on a telephone survey of more than 2,000 adults between the ages of 20 and 75 living in households in Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul, from areas selected as diverse settings; neighborhood organizations, interfaith religious initiatives and cultural festivals.
According to the report, respondents generally agreed that diversity is positive. However, a large portion of interviewees fumbled for words when asked in-depth questions about diversity. Among the general questions asked were “What does diversity mean to you?” and “What is positive about diversity?”
Hartmann said several of the responses seem to indicate that respondents don’t necessarily understand what the word “diversity” means.
“It’s a very positive word,” said on respondent, a White Baptist preacher from Atlanta. “I like diversity. It means variety.”
When Al, a White man from Los Angeles, was what was positive about diversity he replied, “Well, variety is the spice of life, and I like to be open to other kinds of music other than my particularly narrow field of interest.” He was not alone; even people who work in race relations struggled with that question.
When questioned about diversity, 13 percent of the participants offered responses that dealt with equality, equal opportunity and fairness. When probed further, 34 percent expressed a concern that diversity could create cultural conflict. That fear was a recurring theme throughout the report.
“If you have too much diversity then you have to change the Constitution, you have to take down the Statue of Liberty, you have to take down those things that set this country up as it is,” said a 58-year-old Black woman from Boston. “This is the only country in the world where if you’re born here you’re a citizen, so you have to change that.”
Hartmann says some of the confusion about the meaning of diversity stems from its generally vague definition. Several of the given definitions seem to contradict each other, he says. Wikipedia, for example, provides varying definitions of diversity as a person (diverse by virtue of race, gender, sexuality, etc.) and their interaction within a community.
The real task, says Hartmann, is not “to define what the word really means but trying to understand all of the challenges of social and cultural differences and not to pretend that talking about it makes those challenges go away.”
The research was presented at the sociology department’s research workshop and at the annual meeting of the American Sociology Association in Montreal, and will be published in the forthcoming issue of the American Sociological Review Project.
– Margaret Kamara
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