The Language of Diversity

For most of my life, I have felt like I was in this weird no-man’s land of diversity.  I’m neither “underrepresented” in my chosen profession (though Asians are not in leadership positions at the same rate), nor part of the majority.    During segregation, some of my relatives stated they weren’t sure which facilities they were supposed to use – colored or white.   Though thankfully we don’t have this conundrum today, the language of diversity – what we call each other, what we call the behavior, how we describe the situation – is still just as troubling to me.

I get it though.  Life and people are complicated.  Everyone’s experience is different, so finding the right language to describe such nuances is difficult and fraught with emotion and connotation.  And in our attempt to not offend, I believe we have instead opted to minimize.

For example, when examining our policy around diversity, we use the language of “prohibited behavior.”  You may not harass, discriminate or retaliate against people if they are in a protected class.    In other words, if you are not targeting someone because of protected class status, then feel free to harass, retaliate and discriminate with impunity.  Apparently it’s legal, assuming you can prove it’s not based on a protected class.

Even the phrase “prohibited behavior” minimizes what it is.  When I was in school, also prohibited were wearing skirts above the knees, sleeveless shirts, T-shirts with graphic images or offensive words, chewing gum or having other food in class, and kissing in the hallways.   These sorts of prohibited behavior are hardly on par with those that create inequity and a hostile environment, yet we use comparable language to describe them.

“Prohibited behavior” also focuses on the person committing the offense, sanitizing  the impact on the targeted person.  Such behavior is, in truth, oppressing, abusing, bullying, marginalizing, controlling, criticizing, subjugating, excluding, devaluing, mistreating, denigrating, ignoring, violating, demeaning, treating contemptuously, etc.   This type of prohibited behavior is, at best, a bad idea and at worst, is damaging and immoral.  

I understand why we do it.  We all have biases, both conscious and unconscious.  When confronted with our biases we often react defensively and angrily.  Neutral language is sometimes required to even allow the conversation to happen.  However, as we’re placating the perpetrators, what are we doing to those who are suffering from the discrimination?

Though I’m in this weird class of a sort-of-minority, I have experienced racism and even sexism most of my life. Though I believe I have processed that contempt and become a better person because of it, I still have difficulty recognizing and healing from discrimination unless I fully acknowledge its presence and impact on me.   This neutral language, though probably designed to allow people to confront their biases, is a barrier to having an honest dialogue, real accountability and healing.

I really don’t know the solution to this conundrum.  However, my own healing requires that I recognize and name the behavior for what it is, and acknowledge the impact it’s having on me and even on our community.  I recognize the need and benefit of an indirect approach but fear that in the end, it does more damage than good.

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