Words matter - what is “diversity” anyway?

5 minute read


In my work as my department’s Diversity co-Chair, I’ve had the opportunity to think really critically about the language I (a white, cis, female) use when I talk about diversity.

I had the privilege to work with a talented communicator as my first co-Chair. Together, we crafted a survey and resulting report distributed to my department’s grad students and faculty. Recently, I’ve been involved with an application assistance program and in drafting a “Code of Conduct” for our department. All of these involve(d) publicly releasing documents to the entire department - so it’s important that we get the words right!

I’m happy with where we’ve landed on most phrases - our goal of “advancing a respectful and caring community” (taken from the excellent MIT ICEO Report) and our target demographic “[students] who bring a diversity of thought and experience to our student body” are statements that are specific enough to be clear in our intent and vague enough to be broad in our impact. There have also been times when I found it freeing to state exactly what we meant, for example: “students from academic institutions which have not historically sent many students to MIT”.

And yet my title is still “Diversity Chair” - actually, a few months ago I went on our Graduate Student Board website and found that I was in fact the “Diversity Representative”. So uncomfortable, and wrong!! Language matters, especially for people who have power and are engaging in spaces and initiatives with the goal of shifting existing power structures. No matter how pure the intent, a straight “ally” entering an LGBTQ space who refuses to use preferred gender pronouns is not an ally and will singlehandly change that space back to oppression - simply by the words they choose to use (and not use).

I had a great conversation with a friend before break about how to best engage with gender diversity efforts. As a bioengineer, this is really relevant to my efforts as well: our field is quickly approaching 50/50 gender balance - but are we really approaching equality? No, of course not. White (and, to a lesser extent, East Asian) women disproportionately benefit from “Women in STEM” initiatives. My friend told me that she’d recently shifted her perspective from women to marginalized genders. I love this, because in that description is not only the “who” but also the “why” - which also, in a way, adds different “weight” to different identities. By focusing our efforts on marginalized genders, it’s pretty clear that an initiative that’s successfully recruiting white upper-class women is not succeeding if it’s not also reaching trans women, non-binary folks, and women of color.

The word diversity is also an interesting and problematic one.

To whom is all this directed? Who should read more ‘diverse’ literature? For whom is literature written by minority writers ‘diverse’? For whom are minority writers ‘diverse’? Can I describe myself as ‘diverse’ – do I exist in that space called ‘diversity’?

Although the lack of interest in our work on the part of white publishers is a very real problem, when we respond to and celebrate ‘diversity’, we don’t deeply challenge a white system. We only appeal to it, try to fit ourselves into it, make ourselves attractive to it to, trying to sell our ‘diversity’.

My previous co-Chair likes to couple “diversity” with another word to give it context and meaning (e.g. “diversity and inclusion”). I like to try to use words that describe impact as often as I can - “marginalized”, “underrepresented”.

My goal in thinking about how I’m using these words is to move the conversations in my well-meaning communities from those which focus on “diversity” outcomes without recognizing the deep systems of oppression that have led us to where we are:

The goal of inclusion and diversity should be to be amazed by the work someone does and not the person doing it. And of course, making clear to anyone feeling marginalized that 1. It can get better and 2. they too can pursue things they naturally gravitate towards doing, without threat of bias. Just being a part of humanity, being treated how they want to be treated, feeling included.

to ones which recognize all of the baggage that comes with this business. The nuance, depth, and commitment required to truly address “diversity”, because truly engaging in this work means changing how everything in our society is valued and giving up our own undeserved power.

Institutions should not be saying “hey we need to hire more women because it’s the right thing to do” – they should be accepting that business as usual is discriminatory and narrow in its world view. It is structurally a white man’s world. Institutions need to be developing a deeper, richer, curriculum that accesses research done by a more diverse group of scientists, that engages beyond traditional historical narratives. They need to be prioritizing social justice training, having conversations about microaggressions, actively addressing sexual harassment. They need to engage their existing staff and students in the conversations about diversity, why it matters, and how to address it.

Institutions need to do more than implement diversity programs. They need to recognize the importance of changing institutional culture, and do something about it.