Is “Diverse” Really What You Mean?

diversity and tolerance on multicolor background

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.

10 thoughts on “Is “Diverse” Really What You Mean?

  1. Inez Petersen

    How about the WSBA printing monthly articles to highlight and irradicate the kind of bias exhibited by Amir’s comments about “white men” and the “cauldrons of whiteness”? If “out and proud” is worthy of promotion on the WSBA home page, how about giving equal time to articles about the currently maligned “white men.” Of course, we white women who are not members of LBGT lobby could be the next targeted subgroup. We are probably “living in cauldrons of whiteness” too. I don’t believe LISTENING is going to resolve this situation. And who has the “agenda” anyway? The subgroup being maligned or the subgroup of actual maligners?

  2. Edward V. Hiskes

    Amir –

    If we are just supposed to LISTEN, then what is the point of a comments section?

    Since you seem to be an expert, can you define the term “white men”? Do you qualify?

  3. Amir

    Very obviously, this thread is predominated by white men, living in cauldrons of whiteness; so much so they actually COMPLETELY misinterpret what the author is proposing to teach. Sideline your agenda and LISTEN sometimes.

  4. Pingback: Is “Diverse” Hiring Really What You Want? | Oregon Law Practice Management

  5. Inez P Petersen

    This website, as it is used (or misused) by WSBA staff, is why we attorneys need a vote regarding dues increases which exceed the cost of living. Mission creep isn’t getting us much, is it?

    By adopting a” work smarter, faster, cheaper” mission statement, the WSBA could decrease its budget each year by the cost of living instead of increasing it exorbitantly as is currently the plan. That would be novel and wonderful and would become a model for bar associations across the nation.

  6. Edward V. Hiskes

    I have been struggling in particular with the last sentence of the article:

    “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.”

    I have read and re-read this sentence, examined each clause, read each clause in light of preceding and successive clauses, studied the grammatical structure, and parsed verb usage, adjectives, and syntax. My conclusion is that it is complete gibberish. However, if someone out there can explain it, I would be most grateful.

  7. Edward V. Hiskes

    The author says: “I think we demonstrate and thus model the fear of simply saying “Black” when that is what we mean. ”

    I think this statements indicates a general problem with the author’s world-view: she believes that it is rational to categorize people into groups such as “white”, “black”, “men”, etc., and to then attach particular attributes to members of these groups.

    On top of that, she seemingly gives each group an overall characterization as “good” or “bad”. If a group is “good”, i.e. a “minority group”, then it is bigotry, hate, and bias to attribute anything bad to that group. On the other hand, if the group is “bad”, i.e. “whites” or “males”, then it is bigotry to attribute anything good to that group.

    Of course, attribution of particular characteristics to any group is absurd, and there are no rational definitions for such groups either — even for the group “men”, we are now told. Yet the author tosses these ill-defined terms around as if they are principles of Newtonian Physics. I think she lacks critical thinking skills. I also wonder why the WSBA has her on the payroll, burning up membership money on her own political advocacy projects. Rather than paying a full-time staff member to write this stuff, the WSBA could save money by offering a $5 per article bounty on In addition to providing a more diverse set of opinions for publication, this approach would also provide income opportunities for my relatives in Ghana, who would educate us, at length, about the evils of tribalism.

  8. markpattersonlaw

    The only real question for lawyer hires is: Can you do the work?

    That equation doesn’t always allow for hires on some other metric and perhaps is not all that diverse but that is the test.

    I mean, isn’t that what the clients want? How good are ya?

  9. Inez P Petersen

    Can we please have a reprieve from a constant diet of diversity? I do not know one person who harbors bigoted feelings toward anyone who identifies as LGBT. Not one! How many of you are like me? How many of you are wondering where this “marginalization” is coming from?

    Isn’t it about time to shut off the spot light which LGBT activists have enjoyed for so long as barriers based on sexual preference came down one by one? Isn’t it about time to say, “Mission accomplished,” and leave the stage . . . . unless you have become addicted to the attention and must invent reasons to remain in the spot light?

    You darn right language matters. Take, for example, references in this article to “dominant groups such as white people and men.” What is implied by those words?

    I would rather see the NW Sidebar have no articles than a stream of articles like this one, month after month. Since the WSBA must pre-approve what is posted, it isn’t a true blog anyway, just a mouthpiece for . . . what exactly?

    I find it hard to believe that other authors have not submitted articles for publication in the NW Sidebar on a variety of subjects. Where are they? We need some “diversity.”

  10. Edward V. Hiskes

    As an old person, I was offended by the author’s linkage of the word “youthful” with “spry and lively”. Even worse, it seems that this is reflective of a deep, subconscious bias against older people, deeply embedded into WSBA management culture. As a condition of future employment, WSBA should require senior cadre to undergo an intense program of anti-bias and anti-hate re-education, preferably in a residential camp setting, in rural Cambodia.

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