Defining diversity

30 Sep

I recently had my work described in air quotes. As in:

Alison Park is a “diversity” consultant.

I understand and even sympathize with the reasons one would refer to diversity from a safe-distance outside the quotation marks. “Diversity” is one of those everyday words that we often don’t bother to define when we use it, perhaps because the very act of defining it can lead to endless semantic warfare.

Some of us believe diversity, quite simply, refers to differences. These could be differences in dessert preference (pie or mochi), sartorial choice (corduroys or denim) or, yes, race (but why do we get stuck on that?? is the implied frustration)

… which points to the other default definition of diversity: race. Or more specifically, racism directed at poor people of color. Under this definition, the entirety of “diversity” is co-opted exclusively for a conversation that is really about racial inequity. (Notice this in your next conversation when skin color is never explicitly mentioned, and yet is the focal point of the “diversity” issue being discussed.)

Between “diversity” referring to everything and “diversity” referring only to race, there is the list approach to defining what we mean when we talk about “diversity.”

The National Association of Independent Schools, uses a list to define diversity (

  • Ability
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Socioeconomic Status (Class)
  • Body Image (“lookism”)
  • Educational Background
  • Academic/Social Achievement
  • Family of Origin, Family Make Up
  • Geographic/Regional Background
  • Language
  • Learning Style
  • Beliefs (political, social, religious)
  • Globalism/Internationalism
  • ?

You may be familiar with other versions of this list, the so-called “Big 8,” “Big 10” and “Big 12” lists of apparently Big social identifiers… which folks always struggle to recall. While NAIS has officially stepped away from numbered lists “because they [imply] a sense of hierarchy, placing greater value on the identifiers in the list over other identifiers,” the unofficial message of their current list persists: we do place greater value on some identifiers over others. (Hence, this list.)

The “?” at the end of NAIS’ unnumbered list is another version of the “etc.” that so often punctuates lists of so-called Big social identifiers. I think it serves both to acknowledge the diversity of diversity and to proactively defend against the inevitable outcry about what has been left off the list.

Maybe the problem is listing to define “diversity.” While a list tells us what diversity is supposed to matter, it doesn’t tell us why. This is what I used to struggle to understand in the face of this or any other “diversity” list: what are these listed identifiers supposed to represent? What do ability, age, sex, race and socioeconomic status have in common?

So I created my own working definition of diversity that has served Blink well in its work with over 35 schools:

Diversity refers to those differences in identity that impact our social experiences, including status and access to resources. The impacts of those differences play out for entire groups of people, not just individuals.

Takeaways of Blink’s definition:

  • Diversity is always social and contextual. 
  • Diversity includes majority and normative identities. (Consider how identifying as heterosexual, physically-able and gender-confirming facilitate everyday life.)
  • Diversity matters to you, to me and to us.
  • The point of naming and talking about diversity is to create communities and institutions where everyone can thrive.

Based on this definition, I’d like to declare loudly, proudly and unequivocably that I am  diversity consultant. No air quotes needed.

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