By Robin Nussbaum, PhD

Originally published on NWSidebar. Reprinted with permission from the Washington State Bar Association.

Robin Nussbaum

Language matters—I mean really, really matters. The words we choose can make a huge difference to the overall meaning of something we are communicating. Even little connotations and implications can have a big impact on the meaning. For example, if I were to write the sentences, “His actions were youthful,” and, “His actions were childish,” you would see that the last words in each sentence have the same definition (denotative meaning) but very different implications (connotative meaning). Denotatively they both mean seeming young or having qualities associated with a child, but connotatively, the former suggests spry and lively (positive connotations) while the latter suggests naiveté or immaturity (negative connotations).

Connotations within the language of diversity

Similarly, the words we choose to use in the context of social identities can have sweeping implications as well. Sexual preference vs. sexual orientation, oriental vs. Asian, mulatto vs. mixed race, etc. Many who have gained some competence in the language of diversity and inclusion are well aware of these terms and the negative connotations of those that have fallen into disfavor. However, there is a phrase still commonly used among my own community of social justice activists and diversity leaders that I argue is problematic in some of its applications.

The phrase is some version of “diverse attorneys” or “diversity hires.” Diversity is defined as “The fact or quality of being different; having a variety.” It can only be applied to a group of things or people in order to highlight the presence or absence or difference or variety. The reality is that a roomful of black women is no more diverse than a roomful of white men. And yet, we tend to describe programs as being aimed at “diverse attorneys” and state that we would really like to make a “diversity hire” in this position. But when you stop to think about it, what do we really mean? If a program is for diverse attorneys, it must be for all attorneys and hopefully the group will represent a large variety of people. Is that really what we mean? No, it isn’t. What we mean is that the program is for attorneys who are underrepresented or marginalized in the field of law. Why not say that? Or better yet, let’s actively state what we mean. Is the program really aimed at women and people of color? Then let’s just say so. Let’s not seek a diversity hire; let’s seek to create a diverse workforce. Or we can talk about diversifying our employees.

Just in case this isn’t clear, I am not suggesting that we never use the word diversity or its derivatives. I just want us to use it appropriately and to be very intentional about saying what we actually mean instead of using it as a “cover word”—a word we think will be more palatable or easier for people to swallow.

So what?

This isn’t just based on an obsession with using the “right” words for things. It is because, as I stated at the beginning, language matters and our word choice means something. Maybe more importantly, our words often connote and imply things. I believe that the use of “diverse” when we really mean “underrepresented or marginalized” or even “people of color,” actually results in several undesirable things: 1) We imply that it is the underrepresented or marginalized who are different and thus “other” (and often both different and other have negative connotations themselves); 2) we imply that diversity is about and for those marginalized groups—that it is not about or for white people, men, etc. And this, I think, is a fatal mistake that results in dominant groups such as white people and men believing they have no role to play in achieving social justice and equity; and 3) I think we exhibit some of the very fear which we are often trying to combat: the fear of really talking about race and racism or sex and sexism at deep and meaningful levels. I think we demonstrate and thus model the fear of simply saying “Black” when that is what we mean. I would rather that we model both having the courage to say what we mean even when it is hard, controversial, or may not go down well and intentional use of language that is inclusionary rather than exclusionary and doesn’t serve to further marginalize certain communities.