The Problem With “Diversity” | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Problem With “Diversity”

Columnist Tereneh Idia on a noun used in an attempt to create equity, but is instead dehumanizing.

There is problem with “diversity.” It’s a noun best used to describe variety in things, styles, and thoughts. But people? 

When used this way, diversity puts human beings in the state of being a thing, an other. It misguidedly defines a “normal” thing, and then diversity as another thing. While attempting to create equity, it actually focuses the conversation on dominate-culture. It is dehumanizing.  

A few years ago, I was sitting around a table talking about “young people in Pittsburgh” and how to attract them — blah, blah, and blah. I said, Well, we need to focus on diversity.  A white woman at the table said, “Well, I was at an event last night and it was diverse, there were guitar players, some drummers, a piano player …”

You see where she was going with this right? Guitarists, drummers, piano players — that’s diversity. So, my point about representing people across cultures and colors was lost. Maybe that was her goal. And how often does conversation about isms get railroaded, sidetracked, muddled to the point of … what were we talking about again?  

Now, I appreciate that many well-meaning people work on diversity issues. Some of my friends have the word printed on business cards. However, I would like to offer another word.

Reality. As in, we are moving to reflect the reality of our customers/community/country/world. 

At the workplace.

As part of curriculum, media, arts, science. 

Across all manner of disciplines and ideas.

We are moving to show reality of cultures, of people, and representing this in a qualitative and quantitative manner.

The antonym of reality is fantasy. As in, the fantasy we create when we have an over-representation of white men in the workplace, curriculum, government, media, arts, and more. We are living in this is very destructive fantasy where people who are considered “diverse” are “other.” Not worthy of full consideration. Not of equal value. 

“Diversity” also allows for the laziness of “one voice.” As in, Well, we made a diverse hire, here they are (points to one African-American, Latinx, Asian, or multicultural employee). If people running companies thought about reality instead, we would make some progress on real equity — and with that, justice. 

In “The Danger of a Single Story,” a widely-vied TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she points to the problem of hearing one person’s story and applying that monolithic view to a multi-layered, complex culture or people. That danger also extends to placing “one voice” as the only representation. 

The next time you want to use the word “diversity” to advocate for equity in representation of all people, use the word “reality” instead. See how it makes the point more clearly, and wait for the reaction.  

It will speak volumes.

Follow featured contributor Tereneh Idia on Twitter @Tereneh152xx.

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