What does diversity really mean? Being included or living within an egalitarian society?

I frequently find myself questioning what those buzzwords, diversity/inclusion/incorporation, do in our daily lives, what are their meanings, significances, and practices in any institutions such as universities, or any country having particularly the “multicultural” integrationist policies such as the UK, Germany, the US, or Canada. I believe we need to take a closer look first what those words really mean, perhaps before arguing whether “diversity makes us smarter” or attempting to find any correlation between diversity and being smarter/creative/hardworking. 

For one of my classes, I interrogated what inclusion means in relation to “diversity”. I came to notice how it is bitterly a contested concept in terms of the ways in which we use it in everyday life as if it brings about equity, equality, justice, and neutrality with regard to race, gender, and class. What do I mean by this?

In most English language dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Merriam-Wester Dictionary, the word inclusion is defined as “the act of including and the state of being included” and/or “the action, practice, or policy of including any person in an activity, system, organization, or process, irrespective of race, gender, religion, age, ability, etc.”[1] Also, according to Racial Equity Tools’ Glossary, the word inclusion refers to “authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power.”[2] Yet, one of the contestations over its meaning is that despite inclusion as a concept suggests that nobody is excluded, it is also paradoxically characterized by othering as it pinpoints the Other and the excluded. I suppose that’s why Katherine W. Phillips in her article points out nicely why diversity creates anxiety within the society and imagines the other way around at the end of the day.  In this regard, she says

Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So, what is the upside?

And, then by providing some researches, she gives us a hope for the positive influence of diversity in a sense that it fuels innovation as diversity brings different information, opinions, and perspectives, and it provides new thinking, so that makes us smarter.

Source: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_diversity_makes_us_smarter

Definitely, there might exist a correlation between diversity and being smart, innovative, and creative as she mentions in her article; however, what I want to draw your attention is the other side of the story, I believe. Given the dictionary definitions of inclusion, the discourses of inclusion such as diversity or multiculturalism give us an impression of providing equality and justice for those excluded people. Yet, despite the appreciation of the excluded identities with the focus on the difference in terms of race, gender, and class, none of those definitions, however, alludes to equality or social justice for the already excluded groups of people. Do you think, do they?

Furthermore, as inclusion by its definition aims at homogenizing identity categories by including the Other, I think it still insinuates the logic of “difference within” or “inclusive exclusion.” That’s why the conceptualization of inclusion as well as diversity is ambiguous. Even, one can throw all sorts of arbitrary differences which may eventually result in neglecting inequalities and differences. Therefore, I believe, before talking about the positive impact of being diverse on innovation, it would be better to think about how we can alleviate the logic of “difference within” or “inclusive exclusion” in which inequalities are disguised under those buzzwords other than promoting “diversity” for the purpose of innovation. I wonder what do you think?


[1]Accessed at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inclusion and http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/93579?redirectedFrom=inclusion#eid.

[2]Accessed at http://www.racialequitytools.org/images/uploads/RET_Glossary913L.pdf.

8 Responses

  1. I think the process you are asking for would probably start with a recognition of privilege from the “othering” parties? For my purposes, the second definition of inclusivity is the one that offers the most: “authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power.” The key words there (for me) are “authentic” and “in a way that shares power.”
    I did not read Katherine Phillips the way you did. My takeaway from that piece is that homogenous groups are less innovative than diverse groups precisely because they are too much alike and the people in them has an (implicit) sense of what they might expect from the others.

    1. Dear Dr. Nelson,
      I appreciate your comment and thank you very much for your thoughts! I hear you and I am with you! Also, I agree with your emphasis on your second definition of inclusion as, I believe too, it offers a more promising way to articulate the concept through authenticity and power-sharing. And, I suppose my reading of Katherine Phillips is not really different from yours. The point I tried to make is to question (maybe thinking out loud) that “are we really able to acknowledge the racial, gender, and class inequalities in the practices of inclusion in a place like universities or other institutions? or would it be possible to question the ways in which institutions use those buzzwords only for their ‘image’? Sometimes, in the age of neoliberalism, I suspect the actual recognition of those words; that is to say, sometimes it seems to me that some institutions appropriate those words only for the sake of being seen as diverse. Therefore, I took Katherine Phillips’s piece as a point of departure to think inclusion in order to interrogate a different side of the story.
      Besides, yes, heterogeneous groups can be more innovative since they seek ways to compromise and need to think what others expect from them and vice versa. Thanks for letting me think about that again.

      1. Dear Sengul — Thanks for this reply! I agree with your assessment of how institutions appropriate words like “diversity” in ways that do not necessarily advance social justice. Fortunately, when we talk about inclusive pedagogies we’re thinking about the kinds of interpersonal relationships and sensibilities that we bring to the classroom. I’m committed to engaging these things one step at a time.

        1. Dear Dr. Nelson,
          Many thanks for your prompt reply and clarification about diversity in relation to inclusive pedagogy. Yes, it would be best to think diversity firstly as interpersonal relations and sensibilities within the context of the classroom.

  2. Hi Şengül,

    I hear you on the point that social diversity can cause discomfort, but I think this might be a situational phenomenon where in the context of a working-group, the diversity makes for a stronger atmosphere of critical thinking and problem solving. I say this because when we have diverse groups working together, we benefit from having lots of different kinds of people with different kinds of experiences, backgrounds and working knowledge, thus the increased chances that a creative solution will be produced by the collaboration. If everyone is more homogeneous, as Dr. Nelson commented above, then there are likely to be more missed opportunities because everyone may tend to think the same way.

    1. Hi Sara, many thanks for your comment and for your time and interest to read my post! I believe my point was not to say social diversity can cause discomfort at all. As I just tried to explain in my response to Dr. Nelson, sometimes I feel institutions adopt and appropriate inclusionary discourses without even thinking what it is. When I read Katherine Phillips, I thought maybe it would be good timing to use her piece as a point of departure to share my ongoing thoughts and think out loud about this.

      Also, I understand Katherine Phillips’s point that heterogeneous groups are more innovative as they tend to compromise more to include everybody; but at the same time, I can’t stop thinking that how can we define “homogenous” and “heterogeneous” groups, from what perspective. I believe each group is heterogeneous in a way. Therefore, working in any group is already able to provide a stronger atmosphere of critical thinking and problem solving for me. I don’t know, I guess I am still thinking about this 🙂 And, thanks once again.

  3. Great post and enjoyed reading it! I do agree with you that the idea of inclusion can be regressive for certain communities who do not want to assimilate in mainstream culture. In such a situation it becomes crucial to involve communities to decide for themselves. It is also important to recognize that social institutions can be coercive in nature. In a school setting how dow we ensure that we all can maximize our learning experience and feel a part of a community.

    1. Pallavi, thank you so much for your comment. That’s why I guess we should not take the meaning of “diversity” or “inclusivity” for granted. But the point you made here seems very crucial, which is the involvement of communities in any decision-making process.

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