• Jim Kelly

The questions you should ask about diversity

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

One of the biggest non-debates going on in workplaces, schools, and politics is the urgency of increasing diversity. Everyone understands diversity is a good thing, or at least they understand everyone else thinks it's a good thing.

But before we can talk intelligently about whether it's good or not, we need to be clear what we're talking about. Diversity is a more slippery concept than it appears.

Wisdom starts with meaning, and meaning starts with etymology. Diversity comes from the Latin meaning two truths. A diverse group isn't dominated by a single type of thing; multiple types coexist within it, and it doesn’t have too much of any one. It's not just non-homogeneous, it's anti-homogeneous.

Which is to say diversity is a negative concept. It doesn’t identify any desired state, it just opposes one particular state, and even that it alludes to only vaguely. On what dimensions are group members assessed? By what test of sameness should members not all be the same? How much variation does a group need to become diverse? These are all left to the imagination.

In other words the literal term is so vague it scarcely means anything at all.

Social justice usage

Of course, we know people calling for more diversity in recent decades have something more specific in mind. They want to see more women and fewer men, more blacks and fewer whites in certain desirable positions.

How many more? That's rarely made explicit. If half of CEOs were women and 13% were black to match the US population, would diversity activists retire in satisfaction? Or would they continue to press race and gender preferences on a new front?

Can such a state of "optimal diversity" be considered diverse at all? If neither environmental nor innate differences between genders or races lead people toward different roles, society is homogeneous--exactly the opposite of diverse.

Start asking questions

If you’re being solicited to help promote diversity at your workplace or school, you should ask yourself if you really understand what’s going on.

  • Have the advocates defined what they mean by the word or identified any particular goal?

  • Are people around you using diversity as a euphemism for race and gender preferences?

  • If they believe such preferences are a good idea, why might they feel the need to smuggle them in euphemisms?

  • Is it culturally safe to ask questions about diversity policies, or is something enforcing a taboo against anything but full-throated support?

  • If diversity or any other cause is vital to do, can it also be harmful to define?

  • Are you being respected or bullied?

In many organizations, diversity is a critical initiative protected by a ring of invisible eggshells. Nobody dares question it for fear of being called racist, so no one asks anything at all.

If you’d rather not spend your days tiptoeing around eggshells, stop. You don’t have to ask a confrontational question like “why?” Ask a focusing question like “How will we know when our organization is appropriately diverse?” Or ask a meta question like “How many employees feel safe discussing our diversity goals, and how many sense it’s a taboo subject?” Then listen to the answer you get, because it will doubtless invite more questions.

Any group’s culture is defined by what its members do every day. You have as much power as anyone else to steer yours, and in fact you’re already doing so. Whenever you self-censor to avoid eggshells, you’re building a culture of eggshells and self-censorship. Whenever you put a toe across the line of a taboo, you’re creating a culture of openness, carving out more space for others to say what’s really on their mind.

What sort of culture do you want to spend your days in?

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