The problem with diversity

The term—and the concept—doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody

Detria Thompson is a Sacramento-based freelance writer.

Detria Thompson is a Sacramento-based freelance writer.

Diversity has become the buzzword for real and aspirational race and gender inclusion. Its absence has been a subject of debate in issues as wide-ranging as Oscar and Grammy award representation, mainstream media imagery, and who gets hired and promoted at Google.

Some businesses genuinely embrace the benefits of a diverse workforce, while others view it as a to-do list item to be checked off in response to laws and public pressure.

The top dogs of government, the private sector and mainstream culture still rush to the mic to congratulate themselves for hiring, promoting or formally recognizing the first female-Latino-African-American-Asian-fill-in-the-blank. These firsts should be celebrated, but underscore how the exceptionalism of a deserving few gets hyped while the lingering exclusionary impact of racism and sexism goes unchecked for the many.

There are people who say they’re experiencing diversity fatigue. They don’t notice differences and nothing else matters as long as you’re cool or smart or qualified. Except race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status and other demographic particulars do factor into the quality-of-life equation and opportunities, or lack thereof, life has to offer.

If you’re moving through life and these issues never cross your mind, you’re having a pretty good life.

Diversity objectives are the down payment on the blind equity Americans say they cherish. It’s the piece that must be in place before meaningful inclusion can happen. Instituting mechanisms to achieve balances the playing field for groups adversely impacted by historical and structural discrimination.

Females, for instance, represent half of America. You wouldn’t think such a sizable demographic would still be underpaid relative to men, inexplicably over- and under-represented in some occupations, and subject to casual and overt sexual harassment—even sexual assault—in the workplace.

We find these imbalances in surprising places. Google and Microsoft, two left-coast global tech companies, are scrambling to address accusations of systemic gender discrimination. Their work environments, where mostly white males seem to flourish, are apparently some kind of hellish daily obstacle course for women.

The belief that diversity and inclusion aspirations are unnecessary is ubiquitous. Some people think we live in a meritocracy where brainpower and work ethic are dependably rewarded. This ideal is constantly reinforced in American culture, as is the belief that homophobia, religious bigotry, racism and gender discrimination are historical footnotes.

So there’s pushback—a diversity backlash. The term social justice warrior, for example, is a perfectly badass descriptor in some other universe. But in this time and place, it’s a pejorative that describes self-righteous progressives who complain too much?

Identity politics is another pejorative typically used to describe issues important to people of color, women or LGBTQ people who organize to push for social and political change. Critics say these groups separate themselves from the mainstream. But these groups routinely experience micro-aggressions and explicit bias perpetrated by the mainstream.

Whiteness, a concept rarely discussed in mainstream culture, is also an identity—with advantages. It’s an assumed identity in America, in the same way most people assume other people are heterosexual.

The problem with diversity is it’s easily reduced to a multicultural body count, when inclusion is really the elusive end goal. Actualized diversity is a social order with all-inclusive opportunities to contribute, progress and lead—and it’s worth fighting for.