A Ph.D. student recently contacted me to talk about my work and intersections with her field of research, and once again, I found myself doing that initial lexicon dance that’s so vital in this field to verify whether I’m talking with someone about the same or different ideas.
As someone who is perpetually involved in this dance (and occasionally adding new moves to it), I offer this taxonomy of diversity terms as an example of research-based and intentional language that I use consistently and systemically in my work. I’m not proposing these definitions as the right ones, or the ones you should be using. I’m offering them as a well-founded reference point, with the question: so what do you mean when you talk about diversityequityinclusionculturalcompetencyandsocialjustice?
Diversity refers to differences in those aspects of our identities that on a group level impact access to resources and opportunities, privileges and disadvantages, and status in communities. Diversity includes normative and majority groups. Diversity is not a synonym for minority groups or people who are stereotyped as being disadvantaged. Thus, if you want to talk about a specific group of people, it’s clearer and simply accurate to just say so.
We talk about diversity because it both enriches our lives (more on that in an upcoming post) and because it correlates with social inequities among groups of people that are predicated on accident of birth: that is, whether or not they happened to get born into the right, good, favored, normal or simply default social group (see Steven Jones’ “The Right Hand of Privilege” thoughtpaper for more: http://www.jonesandassociatesconsulting.com/The_Right_Hand_of_Privilege_ThoughtPaper.pdf). This is privilege: unearned social advantage in the form of entitlement to resources, opportunities and preferential treatment; and freedom or immunity from stigma, presumption of deficit or additional hurdles–just because of how you got born. Guilt and shame don’t negate privilege; they often just disable us from using that privilege to effect greater equity. (And if we don’t use our privilege intentionally, it still has a social effect.)
So we talk about the fact of diversity because we care about equity, which is fairness, not just for individuals, but for whole groups of people who co-exist. Equity isn’t making things equal for everyone, or making everything nice and perfect for each individual. Equity is dismantling norms, practices, attitudes and policies that unfairly favor some over others–not just for the good of those who are disfavored, but for the collective good: a society benefits when everyone in it has a fair shot at thriving.
If we care about equity not just as a concept but as a social possibility, then we define, enact and create accountability for cultural competency, which is the understandings, skills, habits of heart and mind, default practices, tools and discernment that help us shift the natural tendency of social inequity toward an intentional set point of fairness that benefits our community’s vision, goals and members.
In this process of grappling with equity and articulating cultural competency, communities necessarily reckon with their diversity bandwidth and actual or preferred limits of inclusion. This is to say that most groups don’t really intend to be 100%, all-around welcoming and empowering of all identities. (The difference between just welcoming and being inclusive is that you welcome someone into your home, and it’s still your home. When you include someone, you share ownership and accountability of the space you cohabit.) The truth is, most organizations and groups define and perpetuate themselves in part by exclusion, whether intentional or not–for example, workplaces that are friendly to liberal but not conservative politics (or vice versa), or schools that only communicate with families in English. I bring these up not as examples of right or wrong practice, but to suggest that part of equity and inclusion work is recognizing what your group’s operative biases, exclusions and inequities are, and then discerning how helpful or bona fide they are in fulfilling your organization’s mission.
Social justice is both the vision and the inclusive process of cultivating equity for individual and collective thriving, through individual, community and institutional understanding, communication and discerning action.