Jargon and buzzwords are overwhelmingly easy to adopt. This is how we learn how to understand each other in our professional lives. We use jargon in order to avoid having to fully define ourselves every time we speak about a topic that is specific to our interests or industry. Terminology goes through evolutions as we discover more concise ways to express concepts or as language becomes outdated. Jargon has its place in society when not overused. However, even as it creates understanding for those that work with the subject, it can create misunderstanding and confusion for those who are new to an industry or interest.
The word ‘diversity’ might be in danger of becoming jargon. Although the word is not limited to one specific industry or sphere of life, it is not always well defined. Often, diversity articles are accompanied by a stock photo of a minority person or a group of people that visually represent various racial demographics. Since images matter, this communicates a message to the common lay person who might not study, write, or think about diversity efforts. It communicates that getting people together in a room with various skin tones, and perhaps a mix of genders, equates to diversity. A surprising number of Americans don’t have genuine cross-cultural relationships, so being in a room with different types of people is a step toward diversity efforts. Relationships with those who have a range of life experiences is integral to an understanding of why the diversity conversation is important. However, being in the same room with someone from a different demographic does not produce positive change.
It may be why diversity practitioners have added on ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ to the term, to create the now commonly used phrase diversity-equity-inclusion, or DEI. These additions help to clarify that this is not just about a racially mixed room. But this phrase also has high potential to become a buzzword. In a culture that is recently more sensitive to diversity, equity and inclusion in light of the ongoing protests around police brutality, these are not adequately understood by those new to the conversation. There are lots of arguments with valid points about who can and should be explaining this, and who should be doing their own work to learn and research. Specifically, many conversations urge White Americans to consider learning more about why this is such an urgent situation.
Regardless, it is critical to understand mental barriers around how a person or organization understands and moves forward with DEI efforts, especially at the beginning of stages of trying to initiate change. The first block is that professionally, we are indoctrinated to develop projects and programs that have finite endpoints or benchmarks for success. DEI actually involves people, emotions, and stories in all their complexities. At the surface level, many people do understand this as a human subject. However, the first business response is often to look to human resources to solve the problem or to hire someone to focus on internal diversity. Human resources does deal with people and organizational culture, but often functions as a hiring and training arm. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a leadership commitment, but it is not primarily a commitment to hiring more minorities or building programs. Those things can follow later. It is a commitment to self-awareness, to listening, to challenging one’s own context, to take an unfamiliar route, and to change the decision-frame around which organizational values are centered. It is also a choice to confront and understand one’s own power.
In our personal lives, social media orients us toward sound bytes, clips, and endless information instead of stories. We likely recognize this and may not even like it about the world, but we are still conditioned by the bombardment of small, fragmented chunks of perspective. Personal stories are critical to diversity efforts, as this is the point where we can begin to see shared human experiences across divides. We are not culturally rewarded to undertake initiatives that have no endpoint, where success is fluid and variable, and work that requires listening, self-awareness, and processing of our own emotions. We also become tempted to add our own sound bytes, because we feel the need to be heard in a noisy room. In order to move forward, White Americans need to sit with those of a different perspective for significant amounts of time.
The biggest challenge to authentic diversity work is although there are real rewards, they are rarely measurable, fast, or on a schedule. Pragmatically, it is really easy to give up on things we don’t see ‘working.’ This is especially true for White individuals and institutions, where giving up or backing off mostly involves maintaining the status quo without considerable risk to self. Thus, diversity work often gets translated into a project or program or hire, which are measurable but do not actually produce an equitable or inclusive culture. Then, the failure to see measurable change becomes self-reinforcing.
Real diversity work does involve reward, although we should always hope that moral reasons for diversity, equity, and inclusion are more than sufficient. Real diversity work is your whole personal commitment or your whole strategic plan. It is a commitment to an inclusive, equitable change in totality. Diversity, equity, inclusion really means to change perspective to ensure that those who have experienced oppression are valued and validated in the way everything operates. It is a new way of seeing the world that leaves no aspect of life or business untouched by the awareness of systemic barriers for marginalized people. No one can promise what the specific results of this will look like, since it will vary from person to person and organization to organization. However, change does come. When people and businesses operate from purpose rather than obligation is it evident. And that is a competitive advantage.