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The Language of Diversity Is, Well, Diverse

June 30, 2020

Language is always in flux. E-mail becomes email, two spaces after a period becomes one space, gay meaning happy becomes gay meaning homosexual. This is frustrating to many people, because it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the rules of written and spoken English. Language is further complicated by the fact that all words have both denotative (official) and connotative (associative) meaning. And meaning is also dependent on user, audience, and context. It’s no wonder we have difficulty expressing ourselves. Add issues that are especially difficult to discuss into the mix, like race and justice, and we often get silence. 

The language of diversity, however, is of critical importance, because language itself has been determined by the people in power—and that language has been used to justify discrimination. According to Rachel E. Harding, PhD, who teaches in CU Denver’s Department of Ethnic Studies, “The way we came into being has a long and deep and troubled history with terminology.” Europeans who colonized the United States called the Native Americans “savages”; plantation owners who bought and sold people called those individuals “slaves”; businessmen and congressmen referred to women in the workplace as “girls”; educators called students with different abilities “disabled”; and all of these examples are relatively benign when compared to other language that’s been used to characterize and dehumanize groups without power.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

Harding provides a succinct and clear definition of diversity: “Diversity is a term that in the 1970s began to be used to indicate a social value—the process of bringing Black people and other People of Color (POC) into largely white spaces.” English Department Chair Philip Joseph, PhD, who teaches African American Literature, also puts the word diversity in historical context. “Although the meanings of cultural diversity predate the late 60s and 70s, the frequent use of the term ‘diversity’ begins, I think, with 1970s multiculturalism,” he said. Multiculturalism was a political and educational movement that sought to recognize and accommodate ethnic and cultural diversity.

You might think of diversity as an umbrella term meant to include and welcome people who have historically been discriminated against for many reasons. Joseph says diversity “was a way to respond to Eurocentric values, history, and demographics typical within Western workplaces and institutions.” 

Inclusion Takes Over Diversity

Inclusion seems to have usurped diversity in usage. But what is inclusion anyway and how does it differ from diversity? Harding explains, “Inclusion is a more recent term, from the 1980s, and has generally incorporated other marginalized populations as well, such as LGBTQ+ folks; people with disabilities; often women; and in the context of higher education, first-generation students.” We might say inclusion is a more diverse form of diversity.

“In other words, diversity became too closely associated with a limited model of multiculturalism,” Joseph said. In terms of race/ethnicity, the standard categories of Black, white, Latino, Asian, and Native American were too limited. Think about the many possibilities of identity within any category, depending on where people are from or what religion they practice (both Nigerian and African American fall under Black; both Jewish and Irish fall under white). “What about people who identified as multiracial?” Joseph asks. “My sense is that ‘inclusion’ became associated with a revision within multiculturalism, one that opened up public spaces and curricula to a much wider, and much less predictable spectrum of identity formations,” he added.

Interestingly, inclusion is not always all-encompassing. Historian Marjorie Levine-Clark, PhD, who serves as Associate Dean for Diversity, Outreach and Initiatives at CU Denver, said, “Inclusion refers to a culture of belonging, where all people feel welcome, supported, and safe to fully express their identities and ideas.” She added, “This definition, with its emphasis on belonging and safety, means that people who threaten others with their speech or actions, are going to be excluded.” 

There is another objection to the word inclusion related to the word’s origins. Inclusion comes from the Latin inclusionem, which means “a shutting up, confinement” (from etymonline.com), which signals imprisonment instead of acceptance. Connotatively, there is yet another problem with inclusion: to include someone means someone is in charge of doing the including, of granting access to a space they own. Given these issues with the word’s meanings, inclusion may prove to be a term that gets replaced in the future.

Black and African American

Race and skin color bring up an important aspect of diversity language. Terminology has certainly shifted over time, causing some people to avoid talking about race, because they may be afraid of not using the right word. 

Harding, who researches the religions, literature, and culture of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, writes, “Black is a more comprehensive term, because it is broad enough to include people of African descent anywhere in the diaspora.” Black therefore includes Black people living all over the world who have been displaced from their homeland. African American, which some Black people prefer, “generally refers to Black people who have lived in the United States for at least two generations, and more specifically to those who are descendants of the Africans who were enslaved in North America,” she added.

And the capitalized Black is now becoming the more accepted term. For example, USA Today recently announced plans to adopt Black as the accepted style for its newspaper and its 260 associated local news organizations. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review explains why: “In the absence of the identifiable ethnicities slavery stole from those it subjugated, Black can be a preferred ethnic designation for some descendants.” According to proponents of capitalizing Black, slavery robbed African American Blacks of their national/ethnic identities. If we capitalize Asian American and Latinx, then Black, which refers to a specific racial group, should also be capitalized.

BIPOC—Never Heard of It?

This article began with a caveat of sorts about the fluid nature of language, and BIPOC is perhaps the most recent “new” term in the language of diversity. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and even Harding was not totally comfortable with its appearance. “Initially, the term was a bit disturbing to me, because I was accustomed to an all-encompassing meaning of People of Color and I did not want to diminish the solidarity among the many communities in this country fighting together for an antiracist, truly inclusive vision of our possibilities as a nation,” she said. 

However, Harding has since put the term in context: “In our present moment, I think this term BIPOC is a way, perhaps somewhat organically, that younger activists have developed to re-center the foundational significance of Black and Indigenous people and our struggles for liberation and justice in this country, so they are not subsumed in a vague sense of ‘diversity and inclusion’ that escapes from the need to fundamentally address antiblackness and the invisibilizing of Indigenous people in our country.”

Forget Minority and Underserved

If there are two terms many people who seek equality can agree to stop using, they are minority and underserved. Harding said, “Both ‘minority’ and ‘underserved communities’ are terms that obfuscate more than they elucidate. They both reify unequal power dynamics.”

Minority connotes that the majority is correct, which historically privileges white people. The other, more practical issue with minority is that POC in this country are a growing population. In terms of numbers, current estimates based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau predict that the minority will become the majority in the U.S. by 2050, meaning less than 50% of the population will be white.

“’Underserved,’” writes Harding, “makes assumptions about who is in the role of determining and directing services and who is receiving services that are similarly problematic.” Both terms are losing popularity because they reinforce assumptions about power.

“Both ‘minority’ and ‘underserved communities’ are terms that obfuscate more than they elucidate.”

– Rachel E. Harding, Department of Ethnic Studies

Citizens who are “holding a vision for a truly multiracial and inclusive democracy,” as Harding writes, can educate themselves about the language of diversity, including its history and shifts.

“All of these terms correspond to different periods in our history and arose within specific political and social contexts related to the struggle for greater democracy and, in particular, to the fight for justice and human/civil rights for Black people and other POC in the U.S.,” Harding said.  

Note: This article highlights the language of diversity as it relates primarily to race. We acknowledge that the language of diversity is not solely related to race. The language of diversity as it relates LGBTQ+ people, women, and other groups should also be discussed.