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Thinking About Diversity

These informal remarks were given at  a workshop sponsored by the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference at Columbia University on April 2, 2012. The Center hosts interdisciplinary conversations among scholars focusing on “keywords.”  This conversation involved me, Ira Katznelson, Fred Harris and moderator Mae Ngai.

Every time I sat down to think about today’s presentation, I found myself impatient, irritated, avoiding the topic.  I realized the word diversity actually annoyed me a great deal, and even infuriated me to the point that I could not focus on this exercise. They say that if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.  So I had to ask myself why this annoyed reaction.

I came up with two reasons:  first, my experience with the deployment of diversity leaves me cynical about its function and utility.  And, second because too often the deployment of the concept serves to contain, marginalize, co-opt, or otherwise absorb the challenge being made by those outside the mainstream.

My experience with diversity comes out a range of situations — running nonprofits, building organizations, building teams of volunteers and staff in organizing projects, demonstrations, campaigns and social movements, funding initiatives on diversity, working in civil rights organizations, fundraising, engaging in the writing of public policy and legislation, media advocacy and politics.  In each of these environments I have used the “diversity” arguments to question and push for change in the dominant hierarchies of race, gender, class or sexual privilege in the environments in which I have worked.  My irritation comes out of a frustration with the concept as a mechanism of achieving structural change.

It also comes out of living with the backlash against any politics that prioritizes race or foregrounds race.  What makes my feelings about diversity so personal is the myriad experiences —  through an accident of birth and a chosen leftist politics,  of embodying diversity and feeling used and managed by it as a concept, claim and analytic tool.    Whether it’s the experience of being the indian immigrant in a small upstate town in the mid-1960’s facing a question of whether you lived in a teepee; or the experience of being an out lesbian in the ACLU of the early 1980’s, which had a hard time seeing sexual preference (as it was then called) as anything bigger than a matter of a first amendment freedom issue.  Or whether it is the experience of being one of the only person of color leaders in the mainstream LGBT political movement for more than two decades, or being the only woman at scores of decision making meetings in the gay movement, or being the staff person to extremely wealthy and privileged individuals with whom I forged close partnerships – the fact of not being a part of the mainstream is a constant and unrelenting lesson in otherness.  And otherness gets weary especially if you think of yourself as universal and what passes as universal a clever magic trick that has deluded millions for millennia.

Three ways I have used the term in my work:

1)    Diversity as a good thing/a moral values appeal.  Used this way persuade those in the dominant group in a particular institution that race, gender, economic justice, sexuality, disability, or whatever should be part of the agenda.

  1.  Framed it as an appeal to do the right thing:  The institution/government/corporation should do the right thing in terms of “inclusion” of the difference – because the “ism” or exclusion or prejudice is wrong.
  2. Framed it as a Todd Gitlinesque-common humanity appeal – diversity is not about having one of each but knowing that we can carry the interests of each in one
  3. Framed it as moving beyond identity….It’s about a politics of justice not an identity of x, y or z.  A justice politics creates avenues for participation and recognition for wider ranges of people.
  4. Lately, I’ve been making the data-nerd/social scientist appeal…. Because there is racial, gender and class diversity in gay communities, we need to have a political agenda that speaks to the needs of these communities

2)    Second way I have worked with it is to focus on the development of tools, trainings, mechanisms to increase representation and inclusion by race, gender and class on decision making bodies and staffs of institutions; to enumerate categories of people previously excluded in public policy frameworks as a mechanism to secure their resourcing and inclusion in service delivery.

  1. Successful examples of tools:  firm requirements/quota queen approaches worked on actions — 1993 MOW requirement of 50% POC diversity and how it was trashed; and boards (in the 1980’s all gay boards used to have co-chairs m/f and required gender parity)- today less than 40% women and far less POC.
  2. Diversity trainings for boards – tons of investment by philanthropy in this to what end…. Urban Institute in 2009 noted that CA has 58% POC population and nonprofits in state have 28% POC on boards; nationally its 14%.[1],[2]
  3. Inclusion is a funny thing and entirely impossible to achieve in a perfect way.  My partner Kate Clinton and I often joke that our clearest auditory and visual image of our years in lesbian feminist organizations in the 1970’s was the sound of folding chairs being pushed backward to widen the circle.  When perfect inclusion became the impossible goal, the enterprise fragmented.  Another example — LGBTQIAA

3)    Ecosystem approach – diverse organizations like biodiversity make life better, makes our work more successful.  This is the corporate and nonprofit mantra.

  1. Four key arguments for diversity on boards (according to Jan Masoaka at Blue Avocado)[3]:  mission (part of an organization’s value system); business case (it’s good business for the company or group); it’s part of the social responsibility of organization to increase access; definition of organization is as one that serves “the diverse” population.
  2. But data disprove the attention that this receives- corporate boards are still extremely not diverse.

These three experiences leave me feeling that diversity generates several unintended consequences:

  • A focus on inclusion can  bleach out a real power analysis
  • A focus on adding treats difference as if it were a condiment
  • As an approach that has the effect of re-empowering that which it says it claims to question
  • Resentment

Diversity as Bleach

Saying things like we must build more diversity on our board actually can leave the conversation of power unaddressed.  One can “diversify” by race, gender, class and still keep the mechanisms by which power is held, gained, distributed and organized in any institution intact.

  • It is a wonderful cosmetic for any institution. Covers structural imbalances under the guise of commitment.
  • bleaches out structural power analysis in many situations by enabling them to be seem identity based rather than structured by material things like money, what neighborhood you live in, what school you went to, who your mentors were and whether they are popular, social capital and social networks that structure so much of why some people get ahead and others don’t, white supremacy or unquestioned privileging of certain values – like the normalcy of heterosexuality.
  • At the same time, a focus on diversity and seeing it as inclusion can bleach out the different histories that different forms of exclusion bring – so we have a black president, but the racism with which he and his family are regarded, reported, treated reflect the persistence of ideas and logics of white supremacy in America.
  • Diversity and inclusion programs in corporate America are great examples of this bleaching effect. Corporate diversity programs proclaim a commitment to workplace equity diversity within institutions that reproduce gender and racial hierarchies and dominance.
    • There’s lots of literature and investment by corporations  on how to engage in “inclusion”, what the benefits can be for employees and company, impact of diversity policies (happier employees, more competitive recruitment).  E.g. From Catalyst Research on Building LGBT Inclusive Workplaces – “Respondents cited three factors that affected their career advancement and the formation of critical relationships in the workplace: a lack of awareness regarding LGBT issues, discriminatory behaviours, and exclusion from important connections with others. LGBT women reported less positive relationships with their managers than LGBT men and non-LGBT women and men did. LGBT employees at organizations with diversity and inclusion programs, policies, and practices, as well as those with broader talent management programs, were more satisfied and committed, described their workplace as more fair, and had more positive relationships with their managers and colleagues.”[4]
    • So structurally, corporate boards are about 16% women[5] but every fortune 500 company has a diversity initiative.  Even in Canada, women held 14.5% of board seats at FP500 companies, and women held 3.6% of chair positions in public companies in 2011. Racial diversity on corporate boards is even smaller.

Diversity as Flavor

  • When it is deployed in many corporate or nonprofit settings the concept of diversity is used as a sort of condiment – a flavor enhancer.
  • It is additive not revolutionary – a spice to add flavor to the colonizing power’s palate, not a restructuring of who makes decisions really.    Out and Equal, the national organization for LGBT employees in corporate America, hosts one of the largest gatherings in the movement bringing together members of hundreds of corporate LGBT Employee Resource Groups – they are called.  Workplace diversity is a huge focus of these companies, and their resource groups compete to get 100% perfect ratings from HRC for their workplace diversity policies.  But I very few of these companies have openly LGBT people on their boards, much less women or people of color.  Diversity is really only about placating employees and adding a little color or flavor, not about sharing power.
  • I do believe that adding people and voices and perspectives to the table can change and transform things; but not necessarily or inevitably and only if there is a competing imperative or pressure to change.

Diversity reinforces the non-diverse as a category

To identify diversity merely restates that there is a norm against which the thing that is being identified as different is in fact different.   In this sense, using the term reinforces the otherness of other people.

  • It perpetually defines every non dominant category as marginal to the main event, as the diversity (extra) that is added and not the subject of the show.  Despite the truth diversity is the norm in all situations, it is what is presented as special, and the norm as that which simply is – even if it is not. (e.g the term racial minorities).
  • Its naming often reinforces the power of the normal/the dominant, it feels inauthentic to me in the same way that talking about privilege can – like hey we have privilege (which we are trying to undo….). Even though we know that what passes as normal is either a byproduct of structural systems that reproduce certain hierarchies (patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, family, heterosexuality) or a byproduct of tradition (inherited notions, behaviors, values, beliefs) which is also structurally reproduced.

Ultimately I suppose what vexes me about the word is that  through its deployment as a goal, a tool and an analytic category we have not been able to transform racial, gender and class hierarchies even within social movements most identify.

Diversity and Resentment

Our consideration of the concept would not be complete without notice of the significant backlash produced by all efforts to secure change in existing racial, gender, sexual and class hierarchies.  The word diversity is burdened with the efforts of potent movements that push back any and all efforts to secure racial equity, economic redistribution, gender equity and sexual freedom. Jean Hardisty named the mechanism by which right wing populism works as “mobilizing resentment.”  An accurate term that begs consideration of the deeper political challenge of how social movements should handle a politics of resentment – that visceral combine of longing, envy, anger and woundedness that comes out of feelings of loss of power and control, feelings of humiliation, experiences of losing ground, fear or greed.  In short – how can a politics of redistribution engage with the reality of resentment?  Some might answer by saying tough, you are losing ground and power and you should.  I think movements for justice and redistribution need to have a better answer than that.  Affirmative action fights illustrate this problem. (Today’s NY Times had an article about the ongoing affirmative action fight and the fact that the Supreme Court has accepted a case in which it will again review the question of how race is considered in college admissions decisions.   One law professor quoted noted that since the 2003 affirmative action decision involving U of MI, race had increasingly been creeping in as a factor, while another lawyer for the American Council on Education was quoted as saying that colleges and universities will “be seeking diversity by any legal means possible.” )

Seen in this larger context of resistance to change, and recognizing the significant investment that each of us has in keeping the privileges and power we enjoy, the idea of diversity seems rather naïve.  The only way I know how to answer the question of how to manage resentment is through a focus on power and a concern with processes that allow participation, engagement and accountability from the institutions that have power over our lives.

I betray my lesbian feminist roots. June Jordan wrote: “there is difference and there is power. Who has the power determines the meaning of the difference.”   I’m interested in building the power/Hardware and Operating Systems through institutions and participatory decision making processes which are conscious of race, class, gender and sexuality dynamics and through a set of political outcomes being pursued.

How do we create mechanisms that allow those outside power structures to challenge and change hierarchies and exclusions by race, sexuality, gender and other forms of outsiderness?   Can any movement for fundamental change ever persuade those with power to give it up, and how?  What mechanisms allow for power to be held by people with very different goals and ideas?

[1]Measuring Racial Diversity in California’s Nonprofit Sector, at’s nonprofit boards, on average, are more diverse than the national average, despite the underrepresentation of people of color. People of color hold 28 percent of board positions in California compared with 14 percent nationwide. Women hold a slight majority of seats on California’s nonprofit boards, while nationwide, they have slightly less than the majority of seats.” (November 2009)


[3]Jan Masaoka, “A Fresh Look at Diversity and Boards,”  (November 2009)

[4] Christine Silva an Annika Warren, Building LGBT Inclusive Workplaces:  Engaging Organizations and Individuals In change (June 2009) – workplaces-engaging-organizations-and-individuals-in-change

[5] Catalyst, Women on Boards,


  1. […] Engaging Tradition Project Director Urvashi Vaid shares her informal remarks below from the workshop on Diversity with Ira Katznelson, Fred Harris and moderator Mae Ngai, sponsored by the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference at Columbia University on April 2, 2012.  CCASD Keywords: Interdisciplinary Roundtable Conversations is a series inspired by the innovative interdisciplinary scholarship promoted by the Center.  The series draws participants together from a wide range of disciplinary homes in order to explore the various ways we think about fundamental critical/theoretical ideas and to generate new vocabularies and new methodologies. Crossposted from VaidBlog. […]

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