Why The Word ‘Diversity’ Has Lost Its Meaning

Millennials will soon be in charge of the country while lacking an intimate, critical knowledge of America’s history. Due to that lack of knowledge, they’re changing the definition of one of the most politically charged words of our time to one of personal philosophy and the bliss of ignorance.

Dismay is the only word that comes to mind when I try to describe my reaction when an article entitled “The Weakening Definition of Diversity,” written by Gillian B. White at The Atlantic, landed in my inbox. I’ve now read the article four times, and each reading results in a heavy sigh and a shake of the head.

According to a very simple definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary, diversity means, “A range of different things.” However, diversity has become a steaming iron rod laden with political context, historical memory, and social hierarchy in America. To use the word diversity is to make a call for hope or judgement for a nation that has yet to reconcile with—or even directly face—its sins. When using the word diversity, one brings forth 60 years of uncomfortable mental images, whether or not that is the user’s intention.

According to the article, the generation “born roughly between 1980 and 2000—are more concerned with hiring those who may have different cognitive viewpoints due to growing up in a different part of the country, or attending a different type of school.” At first glance (or even if stripped of any sort of historical or demographic context), this doesn’t seem like a bad thing at all. Common sense tells us that when a wide breadth of experiences come together within a group, that group is made better for it.

The first of many problems with this “new” definition of diversity is that it discounts the unfortunate fact that being a woman, a person of color, or LGBTQ in America brings a dearth of experiences to the table no matter how they grew up. What the above statement tells me—again—is that parents have been watering down the topic of race and diversity for kids, if they discuss these topics at all. The conversation has been lacking for so long that the current fallout is an inexcusable ignorance of context which makes the flowery unreality of colorblindness seem benign. Why?

One night last summer my husband and I had a few friends over to lounge and chat on our porch while our children chased each other around the yard. One of the couples had three children with a wide age gap between them. The oldest of their three hung close to the adults. He was at the age where appearing to be as adult as possible trumped the amount of fun his siblings were having as the sun melted into rose and gold behind the trees.

It was August, and every gathering—for me, at least—included a somber mention of the protests and violence in Ferguson. The mere mention of Ferguson was becoming like an anthropomorphic specter, peering over the shoulders of mixed company at every kind of gathering imaginable. When the specter appeared on our porch, the almost-adult in our group was eager to speak up.

“I don’t get it,” the boy said. “What’s the point in going crazy and wrecking buildings and things? That’s illegal, so what’s that supposed to do?”

It appeared as though I was the only adult who had heard the question. I had to take a moment before I decided what I should do, because the fact that the boy was missing six decades of context that he should have been taught in school, at the very least, sent my adrenaline soaring.

I remember learning about things like the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church when I was in seventh grade. This boy was going into the ninth grade and was incredibly smart. He seemed to enjoy school, for the most part. I believe that if there had been a proper unit on the Civil Rights era in his curriculum, he would have remembered it and made at least a vague connection to what was happening in Missouri.

However, I chose to bite my tongue. It wasn’t the right time to give someone else’s kid a history lesson. It also seemed that such a lesson needed to be revisited by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who, in 2014 came dangerously close to traveling down the same path taken by Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus in 1957, when the Little Rock Nine had to face National Guard troops while trying to get to their first day of school. The Ferguson police force needed to revisit the horrific violence law enforcement officials inflicted upon adults and children during Selma, Alabama’s Bloody Sunday of 1965. Many of the protesters needed to revisit the history of the intense philosophical and physical training that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee required its protesters to go through before hitting the streets and lunch counters of the Jim Crow South. Somehow, by forgetting, dismissing, or being completely ignorant of these histories, people were making history repeat itself instead of using their newer, more modern talents to carry the timeline into forward progress.

How was I supposed to give this baby-faced kid a lesson in all of that when none of the summer’s most prominent players were setting an example to which I could point?

For the last 30 years we’ve been coddling kids by sugar-coating topics of diversity, proclaiming ourselves a post-racial society despite the fact that there has yet to be a formal, national effort to involve the public in any sort of truth and reconciliation effort. As the layers of sugar have grown thicker and more opaque, we now have a generation that believes America’s racial issues have, for the most part, been solved, that everyone loves gay people, and that everyone has parents who will bail them out if we’re hit with another recession. As we’ve come to this point, the philosophical idea of diversity has shattered. No, the socioeconomic theory of diversity has been dashed to pieces and swept into the junk closet under the stairs. A manager who was born in 1990 thinks that we live in a post-racial society, yet she’s only had one black, hispanic, or Asian friend in her entire life. This manager has been a victim of withheld information and doesn’t realize that she’s never seen the action of inclusion with her own eyes.

Now we have an entire demographic that has been kept in the dark. Millennials will soon be in charge of the country while lacking an intimate, critical knowledge of America’s history. Due to that lack of knowledge, they’re changing the definition of one of the most politically charged words of our time to one of personal philosophy and the bliss of ignorance.

A while ago I started using Twitter and Facebook to ask people what “diversity” means. Most people responded by talking about community and learning about different races and cultures through inclusion and the opening of the mind. No one gave an answer that was anything like the one given by a participant in the Deloitte and Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative study cited by White: “Diversity means to me your background based on your previous work experience, where you were born and raised, and any unique factors that contribute to your personality and behavior.”

Notice that all allusion to “community” and “inclusion” have been stripped from this personal definition. Diversity in the workplace has become a given in theory instead of practice, but the preaching of its usefulness has led young employees to believe that the sermon is no longer relevant. The boy who wanted to know why people were destroying their neighbors’ businesses in Missouri had probably heard plenty about the Civil Rights movement, but only in the context of it being a thing of the past that had been neatly cleaned up with a harmonious conclusion.

Looking back at that evening on my porch, I realize what I should have said.

“Do you remember learning about segregation and civil rights in history class? Well, despite the fact that those events happened years ago and are now printed in your textbooks, they haven’t really been resolved. That’s why you see things like equal opportunity statements on legal papers today, because our country hasn’t made a collective, public effort to speak the full truth about what happened in the 1950s and ’60s, stretching all the way back to when Africans were loaded onto ships off the coast of Ghana to be sold in America as slaves. Because of that it’s easy to forget about why people were protesting so long ago, and because it’s easy to forget, those who are in the minority—people of color—and those who are the poorest often continue to have their rights ignored. If that had happened to your family for generation after generation, wouldn’t you be pretty darn angry?”

We all talk about having a national conversation about diversity and race, but that hasn’t resulted in much action. Perhaps we should forget the conversation. Instead we should all gather around the starkest truths. Together we should melt that syrupy sweet coating off of the inhumanity with which we’ve treated each other and put the facts out for all to see, and then do the unthinkable: Own those facts. All of us.

We should own those facts as we state them aloud. Only then can we make a true reconciliation a reality. After that, we can allow the word diversity to slip into a more general meaning.

Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.

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