Recently, I read a report on the effects of Covid-19 on the workplace. One of the main finding was that “diverse employees” struggle the most during the Covid-19 period. I thought to myself – “diverse employees”? What does that mean? If there are “diverse” people, that implies that there must also be nondiverse people. Looking further into the report, scrolling down, you will find that “diverse” is defined as “[e]mployees who identify as women, LGBTQ+, or a person of color (POC).” That in turn infers that “nondiverse” people are straight White men.
Don’t get me wrong. I support the intention of the report and its aim to reveal the additional burden the Covid-19 pandemic imposes on already marginalized groups. It is crucial that such effects are researched and inequalities are identified in the process. However, there are two related problems with the classification made in the report.
Firstly, a person in themselves cannot be diverse. Diversity cannot describe a bounded individual, but it is rather a description of a collective or group condition in which individuals have features that set them apart from each other. Yet, I encounter the idea that diversity is a characteristic of a person a lot in daily life. Then I wonder, how can, for example, a woman be diverse in a vacuum, as a single person? Let’s imagine a two-member group: a woman and a man. For this example, gender is the distinguishing factor. In that sense, this group is diverse (in the most minimalist sense possible). The example illustrates how one person cannot be the bearer of diversity without a counterpart; the woman cannot be a diverse person by herself. Then, following the report’s definition, how is the woman the “diverse person” and not the man? Together, they make the diverse group - and the man is part of the diverse group just as much as the woman.
Excluding straight White men from “diversity” by referring to them as “nondiverse” is a counterproductive practice in the grander efforts made to establish equality. This exclusion perpetuates processes of Othering and labeling straight White men as “nondiverse” enhances their self-image as being outside the diverse society. It alienates this group from the topic and makes them believe that they do not have any role in issues of diversity. In this way, it promotes White masculine heteronormative structures in which straight White men are perceived to be the norm, the superior standard, that everyone else deviates from (Zerubavel, 2018). As such, it clears White men of their responsibility and engagement in diversity issues as it makes them believe that they do not have any role or responsibility in the issue.
And indeed, being part of diversity is not how White people in general perceive diversity. Research into diversity and inclusion shows that White people do not consider themselves as part of diversity and tend to associate the topic rather with exclusion than inclusion (Plaut, Garnett, Buffardi, & Sanchez-Burks, 2011). Due to this, efforts at promoting diversity and inclusion are sometimes met with negative reactions by Whites. This leads to the problem that companies with missions of diversity and inclusion often lack the indispensable support among White people (Thomas, 2008).
By using “diverse people” as code to describe minorities, White people’s feeling of not belonging in environments that foster diversity is reinforced. Diversity is then, again, perceived not as a concern of White people but as a problem of the Other. Calling straight White men “nondiverse” vis-à-vis “diverse” people does not contribute positively in laying the groundwork for an equal society. Terminology matters and we have to consider what the words we use imply when we describe social realities. As long as the “diverse/nondiverse” dichotomy is used, the harmful idea that there are people who are the standard and others who deviate from it prevails.
Plaut, V. C., Garnett, F. G., Buffardi, L. E., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2011). “What about me?” Perceptions of exclusion and Whites’ reactions to multiculturalism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 337–353. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022832
Thomas, K. M. (2008). Diversity resistance in organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Zerubavel, E. (2018). Taken for Granted. The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable. Princeton: Princeton
Lisa-Marie is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and coordinates the Blog group within the PhD Network