I was on the phone with a potential client discussing a possible keynote address I’d give at a corporate conference on women’s leadership. My contact was cordial and enthusiastic, but I wasn’t surprised when she asked me, a bit awkwardly, “Forgive me, I have to ask, but are you diverse?”
As a multilingual, bicultural, racially ambiguous person, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. Sometimes I use it as a teaching moment, but other times I answer the question that’s really being asked. The question is, “Are you a person of color?
I’ve heard even seasoned professionals in diversity and inclusion use the word “diverse” to refer to people of color as individuals or groups. While I appreciate the polite, conflict-avoidant intentions behind using a euphemism to discuss an uncomfortable topic, this particular euphemism is harmful for two reasons. One, not naming or talking openly about race as such reinforces the awkward, shameful quality of those conversations when such awkwardness and shame are neither necessary nor helpful. As D&I professionals, we should model the openness, confidence and authenticity we so sorely need in the USA when talking about race.
Second, referring to certain people as “diverse” implies there are other people who are not diverse. This creates or reinforces the notion that diversity is only about, and relevant to, people of color. True, people of color, LGBTQI people, women, immigrants, people experiencing poverty or disabilities, and a number of other groups have not historically shared power with people who are white, straight, male and middle class. Therefore, D&I is often viewed (but rarely discussed openly) as a strategy to even the playing field for those historically disenfranchised identity groups – a charitable gesture “we” do to benefit “them.”
However, if the motivation of “doing D&I” is superior results, the conversation shifts to diversity being about everyone. I still witness conversations about whether white people, or white men, “should” be a part of D&I. The fact that this is even a question speaks to how far off track many of us are in terms of why this work is essential. Even if one believes in the values of equality, social justice and historical reparations, these beliefs pale in comparison to the scientific research by Scott E. Page and others that proves average but diverse groups outperform individuals, non-diverse groups (and I don’t mean white) and even a group of the best when there are effective communication and positive relationships – in other words, inclusiveness.
If we are talking about racial or ethnic identity groups like African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians or any people who don’t have biological roots in Europe, we should refer to them as “people of color” (or as whatever label that individual or group prefers) and not as “diverse.” Nor should we say “minorities.” People of color are not the numeric minority in the world, nor in growing regions of the United States, and many people of color find the term minority implies an inferior status.
So are you a diverse person? I know I am, and that’s what I told my client. Diversity and inclusion is about diversity of all kinds, and inclusion of everyone. Period.