Why you should care
There is no such thing as a diverse student, professor, athlete or baby.
A new type of person has emerged across the nation: “diverse” humans. If you haven’t seen many of us — I am one — in your institution, workplace or school, that’s because the effort to include “diverse” students, engineers, actors, executives or other candidates is still trying to gain traction.
Acknowledging the need to include these diverse humans in the halls of opportunity is one of the crowning achievements of a long American struggle for equal access against racial exclusion. It’s been institutionalized in the human resources world of “Diversity and Inclusion.” Yet like many difficult aspects of our humanity that get institutionalized, it has assumed its own language — the language of “diversity.” Diversity-speak has turned me, a Black human, into a “diverse” person. I decline the label.
The problem is that those demanding fair access to bastions of opportunity dominated by Whites did not ask to be renamed by the process — important as that process is. Calling us “diverse” (and we sometimes do it too) is a reminder that our presence reflects a racial compromise in which the indirect reference to White identity is embedded in the euphemistic label. Let’s face it. “Diverse” almost always means not White — or not White male.
A nickname born of racial compromise diminishes the very struggle that brought us to our names.
How did we start calling excluded, mostly people of color “diverse” in the first place? The term probably began after the 1978 Supreme Court affirmative action decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke when Justice Lewis F. Powell, in his concurrence, cobbled together a compromise opinion by asserting a compelling state interest to further “diversity.” Almost a decade after most “Negroes” became “Black” (and almost a decade before many would become “African-Americans”), the court brokered a constitutional deal. In it, the generations of exclusion experienced by Black people might be overcome by a doctrine that justified policies of racial inclusion by enhancing the experience of mostly White people.
Affirmative action began as a reparative policy to remedy the legacy of oppression of Blacks by Whites since slavery. It challenged institutionalized White privilege and provoked White resentment — and still does. Yet under Bakke and its progeny of case law, affirmative action transformed into “diversity,” a policy that would benefit Blacks as much as Whites. It applied to everyone whose presence has been underrepresented for myriad reasons — racism, disability, economic status or even demographics. Justice Powell recommended the diversity rationale after learning of the same Harvard University admissions approach that is under legal attack today.
No matter what justification you use, affirmative action remains extremely contentious. Which is largely why we tend not to speak of affirmative action unless we are critical of it. The rest of us — and by us, I now refer to some moderates, most liberals and all progressives — now prefer the term “diversity.” Calling people of color themselves “diverse,” however, goes a dangerous step too far.
First, it is telling that no so-called “diverse” human calls herself “diverse” at home or in her own thoughts. Becoming Black — to take the original example — was a vernacular struggle in consciousness. From “n*gg*r” to “coon” to “colored,” we had been known by the labels of a dominant race’s hatred of our humanity. The movement from “Negro” to “Black” in the 1960s entailed a revolution in self-consciousness about one’s own power and worth. The embrace of “African-American” by many in the 1980s was a move to create nominal equality with our Indian, Puerto Rican, Native American, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and other human brothers and sisters. Race is indeed socially constructed, and a key construct in social identity in America is of ethnogeographic origin. We tend to say who we are by reference to where our ancestors are from.
Unless you are White, which poses a conflict in self-naming. Most Whites were (until recently perhaps) uncomfortable calling themselves White. No matter their European roots, they embraced the Americanized norm of nameless Whiteness. Only non-White others required a name. This is why we know that we don’t mean to include Whites when we speak of a need for diversity. Rather we’re saying we need non-Whites. Yet calling us “diverse” people once again defines us in reference to diversity, that legal compromise meant, in part, to assuage White resentment against claims of White privilege. Calling people diverse defines them by who they aren’t rather than who they are.
Which raises a final reason never to use “diverse” as an adjective to describe the identities of Blacks and other excluded people of color: Euphemistic labels diminish. A nickname born of racial compromise diminishes the very struggle that brought us to our names. Identity shortcuts casually diminish the long road before and the long journey ahead. Eventually, all institutional jargon wears out and disappears from use. The systemic threat of being disappeared is how we became “Black” in the first place — by refusing to be invisible.
The next generation doesn’t know the history of these words and thinks only what we say today is cool. Given our racial fears and fragility, the etymology of their names will not likely be taught to them. They will instead wear this well-meaning but dangerous term like a badge of institutionalized difference. Let 2019 be the year we stop undermining the need for radical diversity and inclusion with more name calling.
There is no such thing as a diverse student or professor. There are no diverse ballerinas or basketball players. There are no diverse bankers, no diverse writers, diverse seniors or diverse babies. They are just people, trying to make do against daily struggles, some of them still too well known. Call them by their names.
David Dante Troutt is the author of The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America and a law professor at Rutgers Law School-Newark. He happens to be Black.