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We Need to Talk About the Shifting Meaning of Diversity

As a professor of humanities and cultural studies—and as someone who engages in diversity and inclusion work—I see my own institution and many others struggling to confront thorny questions about what constitutes diversity. It is no easy task. Universities and businesses have to balance contrasting and competing visions of deeply ingrained — and often unconscious — beliefs about racism, sexism, colonialism, privilege and freedom of speech, among other volatile issues.

Dr. Juliana MartĂ­nezDr. Juliana MartĂ­nez

I praise and value these efforts, but I often find myself frustrated and disturbed by a growing trend: the dangerous and self-serving notion that diversity means variety and accommodating all differences, regardless of the ethical implications. This shift in rhetoric and practice has allowed those who (consciously or unconsciously) promote racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideas to appropriate diversity and demand that their perspectives be considered as equally valid. This is a false and dangerous analogy.

The pursuit of diversity goes hand in hand with the quest for justice. Therefore, we cannot move away from difficult conversations about the socio-historical aspects of the categories that constitute identity formations, and about the—gendered and racialized—dynamics that produce and continue to strengthen inequality in the name of emotional comfort, or a misguided notion of inclusion.

American society began fostering a watered-down notion of diversity many years ago, prior to the election of Donald Trump and before White supremacists became emboldened and stepped out of the fringe and into the mainstream.

As Jeff Chang reminds his readers in “We Gon’ Be Alright,” the word “diversity” did not acquire its current meaning until Justice Lewis Powell Jr. used it in his opinion in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. In that landmark decision, Justice Powell presented “diversity” as an effective substitute for affirmative action, one that eased White anxiety about race by de-contextualizing and individualizing difference.

Diversity made difference palatable by moving away from the demands of structural change and reparation of affirmative action and focusing on individual narratives of success instead. Diversity also gave comfort to White guilt because it flattened and de-politicized difference and accommodated White resentment by including everyone in its narrative. This meant that Whites started using the language of diversity to define themselves. As a 2015 Deloitte survey showed, for millennials, the word diversity is now primarily associated with “cognitive diversity,” and it signifies everyone’s unique experiences and perspectives, which, of course, they believe is good for business.

The millennial perspective shows the trajectory—and failure—of diversity as a social justice term. From a concept meant to close the gap in achievement and opportunity produced by systemic, racially-based inequality, it has moved to a buzzword closer in meaning to “variety.” Furthermore, diversity has been commodified. Nancy Leong coined the term “racial capitalism” to describe the strategic use of diversity by predominantly White institutions to enhance their symbolic and economic power, instead of redressing socio-historical disadvantage.

Under this framework, diversity works like the “ethnic” aisle in the grocery store: It allows customers to consume exoticism while guaranteeing the rest of the store remains “non-ethnic.” By explicitly denoting certain foods as “ethnic,” the supermarket manages to include, profit from, and contain diversity all at the same time.

Unlike diversity, affirmative action openly aims at redressing structural disadvantages. It brings inequality into the conversation and acknowledges a shared responsibility. This is increasingly important in a society polarized by misinformation and alternative facts. Affirmative action is difficult and controversial because it is unapologetically racial and structural. It neither falls into the delusion of colorblindness, nor pretends that all differences are created equal. Our preferences for working in the early morning hours or at night, or our inkling towards cats instead of dogs, cannot be equated with the enduring impact of racial discrimination or the deadly consequences of transphobia. Too often diversity pretends this is the case, and, in its effort to accommodate white discomfort, fails to address the very issues it intends to ameliorate.

One of the most disturbing trends is how diversity has taken on an ahistorical notion of “identity,” a decontextualized approach that emphasizes personal feelings and levels of comfort over acknowledgment of, and reckoning with, systemic discrimination. Too often it fails to challenge—and even validates—uniformed or inaccurate accounts of historical events if they are presented as “personal opinions.” So, instead of explaining identity as a socio-historical construct shaped by categories that are themselves the product of, and in turn reproduce, uneven power relations among individuals and communities, identity is too often confused with “personality.” This is harmful because it individualizes a problem that is structural, and creates a false equivalence between individual opinions, emotions and hardships on the one side, and historical oppression and disadvantage on the other.

It also produces a troublesome misconception ever more prevalent in traditionally White, liberal institutions like elite college campuses and the tech industry: the notion that what defines a minority is the numbers of individuals in a given time and place, not the power relations at play in larger societal dynamics.

Being outnumbered by a particular gender or race at an event or in a class does not make one a minority. Being a White Christian conservative on a liberal campus does not make one a minority. That person may be outnumbered by differently-minded peers or by students of other races, but he or she does not face the structural discrimination experienced by people of color, undocumented migrants or Muslim-Americans.

Institutions should address the anxiety that some individuals may feel in spaces where they have to interact with people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, etc. But these feelings cannot become the main focus of diversity and inclusion efforts, or keep institutions from doing the profound work that needs to be done to truly prioritize the advancement of historically marginalized communities.


Furthermore, creating a false equivalence between those who advance the rights and dignity of people and those who promote ideas aimed at denying them, based on specific aspects of a person’s identity, is a manipulative appropriation of equality.

In classrooms and boardrooms, we need to talk about inequality, and the real-life consequences of many conservative viewpoints on issues as varied as the War on Drugs, affirmative action and reproductive rights that continue to disproportionately impact minorities and women. This does not mean discrimination against those who “don’t agree.” It is about raising awareness and taking responsibility for the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities across race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and/or ethnic lines. It should be about transforming the structures that created such unequal outcomes.

Diversity is not something you consume. It is something you produce by challenging personal, institutional and societal bias through concrete and sustained action.

At times when the murder of unarmed Black people by police officers is dismissed in the courts, and where racial-profiling and racial violence is condoned and pardoned by the White House, we have to move away from the sugary platitudes that equate diversity with variety; call out the maleficence at the heart of the false analogies that seek to place blame for violence “on many sides;” and restore ethical reasoning, moral judgment, and social justice to the discourse and practice of diversity and inclusion.

Dr. Juliana MartĂ­nez is assistant professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University. She focuses on the intersection of violence and body politics in the Latin-American and the U.S.-Latino context.

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