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‘Diversity’ Is Losing Its Meaning—What Should We Say Instead?

There are great arguments for shifting semantics toward words like “inclusion” and “representation” — but what really matters is that we take the idea seriously.

By Avital Andrews


(Image: Sudowoodo/Shutterstock)

“Diversity” is a decent word. It is. But it’s not good enough anymore — not good enough for the America that we should be working toward.

Language is a living, breathing thing that keeps what it needs and dispenses with what it doesn’t. We should acknowledge that, in English, “diversity” is in the early phases of being phased out.

It’s gotten tired and ponderous, and it’s worth recalling that the word is derived from the same Latin root as the words “different,” “divisive,” “divergent,” and “divorced.” (One translation of diversus, even, is “hostile.”) For the ideal that it’s supposed to embody — people of all races, religions, abilities, and gender identities working side by side in hate-free harmony — it can feel as though it falls short.

Companies and politicians started weaving “diversity” into their lexicon in the 1990s, attaching it to many well-meaning, outward-facing initiatives. But their overuse of the word is part of what has hung it with a connotation that’s forced and inauthentic.

So I started thinking about what might replace it.

Soon after, I was watching Sesame Street with my two-year-old daughter and noticed that the writers of that (phenomenal) show repeatedly use — and strongly emphasize — the word “include” to teach preschoolers the concept of making everyone, regardless of difference, feel welcome and equal. Case in point, this delightful Mila Kunis cameo:

“Include,” it occurred to me, is a more positive word that emphasizes our shared dignity and humanity. It does a good job of reminding us that we’re all members of the same species, with a single planet to share. The Merriam-Webster definition I like best is: “to take in or comprise as a part of a whole or group.” It means, basically, not just to tolerate, but also to accept.

Even our littlest ones understand “include.” Unlike “diversity,” it feels warm, intuitive, simple, and safe. Like a hug.

Verna Myers, who runs a diversity consulting firm in Baltimore, put it elegantly: “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Granted, action speaks louder than words. But semantics can be a powerful way to move society toward action. Should we, then, start using “inclusion” and its declensions (“inclusive,” “inclusivity,” “inclusiveness,” and so on) instead of “diversity”? Would doing so restore meaning back to a crucial idea that has begun to ring hollow?

Even our little ones understand “include.” Unlike “diversity,” it feels warm, intuitive, simple, and safe. Like a hug.

Within about two seconds of the question entering my head, I realized that it’s probably not the best question for a white person to answer, even a daughter-of-immigrants-and-granddaughter-of-Holocaust-survivors white person.

So I called Tracie Powell, who founded All Digitocracy, a news site about how the media portrays and engages with marginalized groups. (She’s also a Knight fellow at Stanford University, studying how newsrooms can use data to connect with audiences that are racially broader.)

Powell said that “inclusion” is “fine.”

Just “fine”?

“Yeah,” she said. “‘Inclusion’ is a good term but it sounds more bureaucratic than I’d want. It just sounds like one of those buzzwords, and I try to stay away from buzzwords. I prefer ‘representative.’ If we can fully represent communities, we’ll be a lot better off.”

“‘Representative,’” Powell went on, “covers it more accurately and fairly. It means taking care of the problem of diversity. Representation acknowledges your presence.”

So she agrees that we should be moving on from “diversity”?

“We need to have a conversation about what it means,” Powell answered. “The term ‘diversity’ has been diluted in a lot of ways. I don’t use it because, I mean, what does ‘diversity’ mean to you? It might have a whole different meaning to you than it does to me.”

Does Powell think it would be more productive for us, and our words, to refer to people’s similarities rather than their differences?

“We need to do both,” she said. “We need to respect and embrace difference but we also need to look at what we have in common. One is as important as the other. We’re a global community now. We might speak different languages, and that should be embraced, but the common thread is that people around the world — Muslims, blacks, Hispanics — have the same struggles when facing bigotry.”

I asked Powell whether she’d like to hear more people using “representative” rather than “diversity.”

“You know what?” she replied, “I’m not trying to police the language other people use. I choose the language that I use. What’s more important is that they actually dowhat we’re talking about, rather than sitting around and talking about it.”

She’s right. As important as language is, it’s crucial, in today’s society, that no aspect of a person’s identity is grounds for excluding them from opportunity. And that’s regardless of whether you prefer to call it “diversity,” “inclusion,” “representation” — or just good old “equality.”