Has ‘Diversity’ Lost Its Meaning?

Has ‘Diversity’ Lost Its Meaning?

How does a word become so muddled that it loses much of its meaning? How does it go from communicating something idealistic to something cynical and suspect? If that word is ‘‘diversity,’’ the answer is: through a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia and self-serving intentions.

Take the recent remarks by the venture capitalist John Doerr at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September. Doerr, who with his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has invested in Google, Facebook and Amazon, was on hand to discuss diversity in the overwhelmingly white and male Silicon Valley. After explaining that K.P.C.B. had begun putting its employees through training in unconscious bias — the company was the subject of a high-profile 2012 sex-discrimination lawsuit brought by a former executive, Ellen Pao, which Pao lost — the 64-year-old Harvard Business School graduate professed himself ‘‘deeply committed to diversity,’’ adding: ‘‘We have two new partners who are so diverse I have a challenge pronouncing their names.’’

Doerr was quick to issue an apology for what he called ‘‘an unfortunate joke,’’ but his conflation of a few additions with substantial changes in corporate hiring and recruitment practices inadvertently revealed what’s so irritating about the recent ubiquity of the word ‘‘diversity’’: It has become both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously.

Many Silicon Valley firms are scrambling to hire executives to focus on diversity — there’s an opening at Airbnb right now for a ‘‘Head of Diversity and Belonging.’’ But at the biggest firms, women and minorities still make up an appallingly tiny percentage of the skilled work force. And the few exceptions to this rule are consistently held up as evidence of more widespread change — as if a few individuals could by themselves constitute diversity.

When the word is proudly invoked in a corporate context, it acquires a certain sheen. It can give a person or institution moral credibility, a phenomenon that Nancy Leong, a University of Denver law professor, calls ‘‘racial capitalism’’ and defines as ‘‘an individual or group deriving value from the racial identity of another person.’’ It’s almost as if cheerfully and frequently uttering the word ‘‘diversity’’ is the equivalent of doing the work of actually making it a reality.

This disconnect is not, of course, limited to tech. In this year’s annual Pub­lishers Weekly survey of book-publishing employees, respondents — 89 percent of whom were white — found ‘‘no real change’’ in the racial composition of the work force since last year, despite ‘‘increased attention given to diversity.’’ The television and film industries are being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over complaints of sex discrimination. And yet, as is the case in Silicon Valley, small victories are often overenthusiastically celebrated as evidence of larger change. In September, for example, when Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress in a Drama Series Emmy, the moment was cheered in the press as a triumph of racial equity in Hollywood. But just a month before, Stacy L. Smith, a professor of communication at U.S.C. who, with other researchers, had just released a damning report that studied gender bias in 700 films made between 2007 and 2014, lamented ‘‘the dismal record of diversity, not just for one group, but for females, people of color and the L.G.B.T. community.’’

Why is there such a disparity between the progress that people in power claim they want to enact and what they actually end up doing about it? Part of the problem is that it doesn’t seem that anyone has settled on what diversity actually means. Is it a variety of types of people on the stages of awards shows and in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies? Is it raw numbers? Is it who is in a position of power to hire and fire and shape external and internal cultures? Is it who isn’t in power, but might be someday?

Adding to the ambiguity is the fact that the definition of ‘‘diversity’’ changes depending on who is doing the talking. The dictionary will tell you that it is ‘‘the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas,’’ and the word is often used, without controversy, to describe things like the environment and stock-market holdings. But in reality — which is to say, when applied to actual people, not flora, fauna or financial securities — the notion of diversity feels more fraught, positioning one group (white, male Americans) as the default, and everyone else as the Other. Multiple studies suggest that white Americans understand “diversity” much differently than black Americans. When Reynolds Farley, a demographer at the University of Michigan, researched the attitudes of people in Detroit about the racial composition of residential neighborhoods in 1976, 1992 and 2004, most African-Americans considered ‘‘integrated’’ to be a 50/50 mix of white and black, while a majority of whites considered such a ratio much too high for their comfort each time the study was conducted.

Bragging about hiring a few people of color, or women, seems to come from the same interpretive bias, where a small amount is enough. It also puts significant pressure on the few ‘‘diverse’’ folks who are allowed into any given club, where they are expected to be ambassadors of sorts, representing the minority identity while conforming to the majority one. All this can make a person doubt the sincerity of an institution or organization — and question their place within it. When I was starting out in magazines, I was told by a colleague that my hiring was part of the company’s diversity push, and that my boss had received a significant bonus as a result of recruiting me. Whether or not it was true, it colored the next few years I spent there, making me wonder whether I was simply some sort of symbol to make the higher-ups feel better about themselves.

Diversity ‘‘is an empty signifier for me now,’’ says Jeff Chang, the author of 2014’s ‘‘Who We Be: The Colorization of America,’’ though ‘‘I still strongly believe in the possibility.’’ Chang prefers ‘‘equity’’ to ‘‘diversity,’’ saying that the latter has been ‘‘deradicalized’’ from its roots in the multicultural movements of decades past. He recalls an anecdote about a diversity week at a Texas university where few white students bothered to show up. ‘‘Diversity,’’ Chang says, ‘‘has become a code word for ‘all those other folks.’ ’’ The problem with code words is that they’re lazy: They’re broad rather than specific, and can provide cover for inaction — the ‘‘I don’t know how to do this or what it means, so can someone else please do the work for me?’’ maneuver.

Talk is cheap, of course, and sometimes you get the sense that the people talking the most about diversity are the people doing the least effective work on it. In the season premiere of his HBO reality series ‘‘Project Greenlight,’’ Matt Damon explained — to a veteran African-American producer, Effie Brown — that focusing on diversity in the casting of a film was more important than promoting diversity among those working behind the camera. It was a striking example not just of mansplaining but also of whitesplaining. His implication — roundly criticized on social media and in industry publications — is that on-screen visibility is everything, when what Hollywood needs just as much, if not more, are black studio executives, writers, directors and producers: the people who decide what stories are told in the first place.

Maybe it’s not surprising that just a month later, the African-American director Ava DuVernay made the opposite argument of Damon’s at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards. DuVernay, who made ‘‘Selma,’’ pointed out that of the 100 top-grossing films last year, only two were directed by women. She urged constant vigilance and proactive searching within the industry: ‘‘We have to ask our agents about that script by the woman screenwriter. We have to ask, ‘Hey, are there any women agents here that I could talk to?’ We have to ask our lawyers about women in the office. We have to ask, when we’re thinking about directors or D.P.s, ‘Will women interview?’ ’’ Her words were powerful and refreshingly specific; they were also further evidence that the work of articulating and creating diversity often — usually! — falls to those who are themselves considered ‘‘diverse.’’

It’s something I have experienced myself. Over the past few years, numerous editors have reached out to me asking for help in finding writers and editors of color, as if I had special access to the hundreds of talented people writing and thinking on- and offline. I know they mean well, but I am often appalled by the ease with which they shunt the work of cultivating a bigger variety of voices onto others, and I get the sense that for them, diversity is an end — a box to check off — rather than a starting point from which a more inte­grated, textured world is brought into being. I’m not the only one to sense that there’s a feeling of obligation, rather than excitement, behind the idea. DuVernay herself hinted at this when she, too, admitted that she hates the word. ‘‘It feels like medicine,’’ she said in her speech. ‘‘ ‘Diversity’ is like, ‘Ugh, I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me, is a disconnect. There’s an emotional disconnect. ‘Inclusion’ feels closer; ‘belonging’ is even closer.’’


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