Institutional diversity needs to exist for the right reasons
What does it mean to be diverse in 2019? The word has slowly integrated itself into conversations regarding the workplace and university populace. However, are the people involved in these conversations genuinely concerned with the homogeneous environment workplaces and universities have created, or rather how they will be perceived in this tumultuous time in American society?
The issue of diversity has always weighed heavily on my mind. I was fortunate enough to come of age in a time where many individuals are brave enough to discuss the unfair treatment marginalized individuals (in regards to race, gender and sexual orientation) have endured in various places, when compared to the treatment of non-marginalized individuals. However, I also wonder if initiatives to diversify workplaces and institutions by those in managerial positions are out of genuine concern or rather stem from a fear of being scrutinized. In other words, as an African American woman, should I worry that my presence at a company or institution is solely based on my ability to bolster a diversity quota?
In a society where callout culture runs rampant, people often voice their opinions at the expense of another individual, which has allowed fear to become the driving force behind diversity. As a result, the genuine intent behind diversity is in peril. If an institution is worried about being perceived as overwhelmingly patriarchal and white, this would not only warrant a few insults, but also may tarnish that institution’s reputation. But by solely focusing on ‘diversifying’ the workplace or any institution with a large populace, the point is entirely missed.
Let me pose this simple question, what is the significance of diversity in the first place? Many may argue that diversity is needed to enrich the circulation of ideas within a workplace or institution, or that it is needed so all can be cognizant of various cultures. However, if these are the only two reasons for diversity, then why can’t an individual just read a book or do some Googling to learn more about different cultures? The fact of the matter is that having individuals of various backgrounds, whether it be in terms of race, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation currently serves the purpose of fulfilling arbitrary quotas.
As I was preparing to apply to college, I would often flip through different brochures, feeling a sense of pride to see people of color smiling back at me. However, when I began to learn more about the schools I was interested in, I was surprised to learn that only a limited number of people of color were present at that specific college or university. People of color, whether it be in the workplace or on a college campus, do not just exist; their “job” is to entice other people of color to apply. Within this vicious cycle, the meaning of diversity becomes lost. In the frenzy to increase diversity, institutions and workplaces have become obsessed with looking diverse instead of actually being diverse.
Honestly, this does not really surprise me. In a fast paced, image-obsessed society, how something looks has become far more important than how something truly is. If companies and institutions can gather marginalized individuals to take photos of them or ask them to share their story for promotional reasons, what diversity means not only gets muddled in perception, but becomes seemingly unimportant.
While I do worry about the intent behind diversity, I do not want to undermine the work that various institutions and workplaces have done in order to create a more heterogeneous environment. But what I want to implore about diversity is that it isn’t so much about including different faces, perspectives, ideas and voices as it is about making said entities feel included beyond their ability to contribute to an arbitrary quota.
At the end of the day, no matter where I go, I will always be an African American woman. I could be in the most diverse or least diverse settings, but that part of my identity remains constant. I urge workplaces and companies to look beyond physical markers of diversity such as race or gender, and instead focus on inclusion.
According to T. Hudson Jordan, writer of Moving From Diversity to Inclusion, inclusion can be defined as “put[ting] the concept and practice of diversity into action by creating an environment of involvement, respect and connection — where the richness of ideas, backgrounds and perspectives are harnessed to create business value.”
In my opinion, diversity cannot exist without inclusion, and the most important part of inclusion is fostering an environment of connection. While I do believe to some degree that it is important to acknowledge each person’s differences, it should not become a habit. Connection is what builds community, and once community is built I believe workplaces and institutions will move from an image of diversity to internalizing a diverse environment.
So, what does it mean to be diverse in 2019? In my opinion, it goes far beyond introducing a variety of people from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. An environment should feel accepting of every person that walks through the door instead of exclusively focusing on how their presence in an institution or workplace will look to the outside world. If we are willing to shake the shackles off of always trying to be perceived as a diverse society, I believe that is when we will truly understand not only the intent behind diversity, but also its power.