This “Diversity” Thing by Esther Nelson


I find a whole lot of hoopla swirling around this thing we call “diversity.”  By and large, these days people readily admit to being “for” diversity.  A former colleague of mine, though, became exasperated with the trite, mechanical way many people rally around the concept, claiming to be firmly planted in the “diversity camp.”  He would say, “Diversity?  How can you be against it?  It just is.”

So, what do we mean when we say we are “for” diversity?  I think, at least in part, we are saying we want to see the variety of genders, races, ethnicities, and classes living in our communities permeate every aspect of our institutions.  People’s “particularities”–their background (education, sex/gender, race, ethnicity, dis/abilities, and class)–shape and color their perspectives.  By incorporating the wide swath of humanity into the public sphere, making room for everybody to contribute to society what is uniquely theirs, not only enriches us, but makes for a more equitable world.  After all, when your voice is “heard” and when you see yourself reflected in the wider culture (legal rulings, the arts, economic policies), you are less likely to feel disenfranchised.

Sounds good.  But how does it work “in the real world?”  It’s bumpy.  No doubt the big push to “bring in diversity” is a response crafted to rectify the practice (at least in the US) of keeping white men entrenched in powerful and influential positions while discriminating against people who are NOT white men, oftentimes strategizing to keep those “other people” out of such positions.  This is an oversimplification.  We know that during different periods of American history Irish men, Italian men, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim men have been discriminated against as well.  Other factors (economic and social) come into play which is one reason the subject of diversity quickly becomes unwieldy.

We scramble nowadays, often under institutional pressure, to display people in the work place who are NOT white men, placing these “not white men” in positions of power and influence just BECAUSE they are not men and not white.  Behind this thrust seems to be the belief that white men think a certain way, Asian women think in another way, and LGBTQI Mexicans think differently still.  And so on.  Does one’s physiognomy determine one’s thinking and perspective?  If so, isn’t there an essentialism at work here–the same essentialism that is at the heart of racist ideology?  Or, do we believe that people’s life experiences are so vastly different from each other’s, resulting in a chasm so broad and deep, it’s impossible to surmount?  Is it ever possible for a straight African-American woman to know where a transgendered Appalachian individual is “coming from?”

My local newspaper runs a column titled “In My Shoes” and invites people from the community to send in their stories.  Recently, Mattie Coll wrote about growing up in the Latino community (Virginia-born mother and Puerto Rican father).  She identifies as “Other” on official forms and writes, “I feel as at home in the Spanish grocery store down the street looking for saffron rice as I do at the local Martin’s [chain grocer] renting ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ at the Red Box there.”  Then Mattie adds, “Isn’t it time to recognize that the bicultural population has a special perspective?”

A couple of years ago, I served on a committee at my university tasked with writing an official statement about “diversity.”  The chair of the committee, an African-American man, looked out at us (three women and one man), sitting around a table and noted how non-diverse the group was, claiming that except for the “woman factor,” he was the only one that represented “diversity.”  I disagreed with him.  He said that, based on my physical appearance, I look like I have Northern European, notably Irish, roots.  I do.  However, I was born and grew up in Argentina, learning Spanish while attending Spanish-speaking schools and learning English at home.  My experiences–especially learning two languages simultaneously, (hidden from his view)–contoured me in ways at odds with his visual assessment.  I’m quite at home in the “barrio,” sipping maté with the women, talking about their domestic (usually) concerns.  However, I am not “barrio born and bred.”

Must I be “barrio born and bred” to effectively bridge the differences between us?  What does that even mean?  Does it mean that somebody who looks like me (Northern European genetic make-up with southern hemisphere world experience) and the women with whom I have sipped maté see the world in such different ways that any lack of representation in the public sphere of people that are like us would make both (or either one) of us feel like an outsider?  If so, how does that work from a practical standpoint?  Since no two people (even identical twins) are absolutely alike, how do we get everybody represented fairly in our institutions?  I would be interested to hear responses from FAR readers.

Of course I support “equal opportunity” in employment and every place else.  One reason I’m not a fan of royalty is that inheriting royal status (wealth, privilege, etc.) through accident of birth doesn’t strike me as something that allows for “equal opportunity.”  No one group of people owns all of a culture’s resources.  Our foremothers worked diligently to insure that women (especially) gain the right to vote, inherit property, and control our own bodies.

I’m raising questions right now about the ultimate effectiveness of climbing on the “diversity bandwagon” without having a clear view of the path we’re on or where we’re going.  We celebrate diversity and multiculturalism, believing that “it’s all good” without a clear articulation of what the words mean, let alone looking for nuances that enable us to critique the concepts reasonably.

As my former colleague noted, diversity is something that just is.  It even exists WITHIN particular groups.  All white men, all Asian women, and all members of the LGBTQI Mexican community do not think alike.  Are we relying on stereotypes when we configure our work places with people we think reflect diversity?  Sometimes diversity lies beneath the surface.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Education, General

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6 replies

  1. In my opinion appreciating diversity is about appreciating difference–not all flowers have to be roses! It is also about standpoints and including different standpoints. In principle, there are as many different standpoints as there are living humans or other individuals with standpoints that humans should consider, and the regress is nearly infinite.

    For me, as for you, the boxes checked on sex, race, and sexual orientation, etc. are a beginning not an ending point. All people who check the same box definitely do not think alike, as you rightly note. On the other hand, in situations of discrimination nearly all people in a group that is discriminated against have had the experience of being discriminated against by their race, sex, etc., despite wide variables in other aspects of their experience (eg Michelle Obama and Trayvon Martin).

    I agree with you that having lived within a culture and speaking the language with members of that culture means that even if you were not born in it, you may understand that culture quite well, though not from the standpoint of having been born in it. (You and Argentina, me and Greece.) So there are wide differences among white Americans’ experiences, for sure, as you point out.

    I would also add that considering a wide variety of standpoints is not enough. We still need, as individuals and communities, to make value judgments–for example just because American culture tolerates pornography that does not mean it is a good thing, ditto for other cultures tolerating other practices that deprive women and girls of certain kinds of freedom, and on and on.

    Still, I think concerns about diversity and difference are a good thing.

    Thanks for posting.


    • Thanks, Carol, for your comments. I like that you boldly state that we (both individually and communally) need to make value judgments–something that can open up a hornet’s nest. I run into this with the subject of FGM (female genital mutilation) in my “Women in Islam” class. (Although FGM did not originate with Islam, many Muslims–both women and men–believe the practice to be right, good, and Islamic.) As culture moves forward, people’s ideas of what is “good” and “bad” change. Many Muslims are working within their theological framework to eradicate the practice. Others are not. It’s important, I think, to keep the conversation alive. Our concerns about diversity and difference are a good thing–as you note.


  2. I’m wondering about the word “diversity”, which as stated above: “Just is”. Would it be more focused to talk about “respect”, “compassion”, “fairness or justice” etc. As the video from Foundation for Global Community points out, we are all neighbours, so get used to it and get along.


    • Thanks for your response, Barbara. I do believe that oft times the intent behind “diversifying” is to promote justice and fairness. I’m wondering in my essay just how effective we are at bringing that all about.


  3. You are asking a lot of questions in this post! I’m just going to take the last one: Yes, we do rely on stereotypes when we configure our workplaces with people we think reflect diversity. And the stereotype game is not necessarily a one way street, the under-represented minority also has stereotypes about the traditional in-power majority. You can’t begin to know what a person thinks until you have a conversation with them (or read their blog, or stalk their Facebook account, etc).

    I think the focus on diversity appreciation is a political strategy to try and ensure stability in a liberal state. Given our level of destructive technology, those disenfranchised minorities can wreck a tremendous amount of havoc on the state. Our civilization is complex but vulnerable. It reminds me of how (back in the Jurassic era when I grew up) no one worried much about bullies at school until the victims of bullying showed up in the halls with semi-automatics seeking to settle the score. In countries with strict gun laws, bullying is ignored and considered a normal part of childhood.


    • Thank you for weighing in, nmr. As you note, “the under-represented minority also has stereotypes about the traditional in-power majority.” One of the differences, I think, is that the under-represented minority usually lack power and clout to be heard, let alone effect change in a society that often consciously ignores them and their interests. To “ensure stability in a liberal state” isn’t a bad thing although am not sure I’m convinced this is a reason the “diversity push” has come about.


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