Few terms have been used as frequently, while no one has a definition for them, as ‘diversity’. You can’t turn on a radio or television program, open a company report or college brochure, or talk about “diversity goals.” The province of Limburg announced in May that it was organizing a ‘diversity at work’ symposium and praised it with: ‘[sprekers] be aware of both bottlenecks and ‘best practices’ and offer the participants concrete tools to get started with diversity in the workplace.’ The symposium also offers mini-workshops, humorous features and virtual reality. So you can ‘get started’ with diversity, it has bottlenecks, but apparently it also makes sense. But what is ‘diversity’? It obviously needs no explanation.
Nu.nl managed to write an article on ‘diversity in the company’ with two experts, where the concept was not made concrete even once. “Diversity is too often still like a kind of dream that companies want to achieve,” says one of the experts. “They transfer the theme to an employee who is allowed to set aside a few hours a week for it. It is not enough. (…) If you don’t invest, it doesn’t work.” Invest in what? And what doesn’t work?
“Of course I am part of the colleagues who are very different”, said police officer Hicham Argani at the end of April on NPO radio 1 in a conversation about how the police want to attract people from “different backgrounds”. Be ‘highly diverse’? Do you have a ‘diverse background’? What does it mean? Argani continued, “I’m noticing more and more diversity, uh, being broadcast.” How do you ‘place’ diversity? What is this secret language?
If you ask someone what the definition of ‘diversity’ is, you almost never get an answer
‘Diversity’ and the now inextricably linked term ‘inclusion’ have been used inappropriately in recent years in media, politics and especially business. But the professionals who use them excel at one thing mainly: vague talk. The world of diversity is abuzz with buzzwords like ‘support’, ‘perspectives’, ‘thinking power’ and ‘execution agenda’. It almost seems like the intention is not to be specific. Because if you ask someone exactly what the definition of ‘diversity’ (and inclusion) is, you almost never get an answer.
Journalist Zoë Papaikonomou and GroenLink MP Kauthar Bouchalikht tried it in their book Inclusion marathon – named the management book of the year 2022. They also get concrete answers from the more than forty diversity experts they have interviewed. They quickly conclude in their book – a serious study by the way – that there are ‘as many people as definitions of these words’. “Because diversity, inclusion and equality are about processes, the interaction between people, organizations and society. It’s complex.”
Oppression and exclusion
The word diversity in itself does not mean much. Literally, it means ‘variation’ or ‘variety’. But in the past ten years, ‘diversity and inclusion’ has become a veiled code language for ‘anyone who deviates from the norm’. That standard is the familiar tune: white, male, cisgender, straight, healthy, neurotypical, theoretically educated, and (upper) middle class. But in statements about ‘diversity & inclusion’, the self-evident dominance of that norm often goes unmentioned. Diversity & Inclusion seems to be the cheerful virtual reality and workshop-filled distraction from the problem: the oppression and exclusion of less dominant groups by the dominant group.
Instead, the emphasis in the language is on the people called “miscellaneous”. If a headhunter described me to a potential employer, they would probably describe me as ‘miscellaneous’, just like Agent Argani. I could be called ‘super diverse’; i can tick quite a few boxes in diversity bingo – black, female, non-western, refugee past, muslim background. I would never call myself that, but calling myself “diverse” helps HR managers and companies avoid more painful systems that underlie the underrepresentation of people like me. Namely: racism, sexism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. “Diversity is how we talk about race when we can’t talk about race,” British-Indian writer Kavita Bhanot summed it up in 2015. “It’s a surrogate for when open discussions of race are too controversial or—let’s face it—too uncomfortable for white people. Diversity seems polite, positive, and hopeful.”
Every self-respecting organization now has a diversity officer
Perhaps this is why ‘D&I’ (short for insiders) has become such an industry where companies invest a lot of money. It is not clear how much is involved in the Netherlands – worldwide it is said to be around $7.5 billion. But that seems like a very conservative estimate because every self-respecting organization today has one diversity officersome even one head of diversity – in any case, it is striking that in order to achieve something a little more equal, a ranking system is used in relation to the police and civil servants. Although one can now speak of a ‘diversity army’; there are also trainers, ‘quartermasters’, countless courses, training and consultancy firms, charters to be signed and knowledge platforms offering solicited and unsolicited advice.
Nice and modern?
The websites of many diversity initiatives often feature images of a strong black woman in a jacket with her arms crossed (“new leadership”), a person in a wheelchair with a laptop on her lap (“productive member of society”), a veiled woman taking confidently a selfie (‘nice and modern’?) or a male couple deeply intertwined on the couch for some reason, staring at a textbook (unclear imagery). These images and people should represent an ideal, ‘diverse’ world where everyone can be themselves and be treated equally.
Diversity is a business strategy
But many texts on the benefits of ‘diversity’ mainly emphasize how crucial it is to the survival of organizations and businesses today. IN Inclusion marathon says what D&I provides: ‘More creativity, better balanced decisions and ultimately more money.’ The Social Economic Council’s (SER) knowledge platform for diversity in business describes its mission as: ‘A labor market where differences are valued and utilized optimally.’ Or as the world-renowned human rights activist Angela Davis said: “I find it difficult to accept diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a business strategy.”
Especially in the Black Lives Matter and MeToo era, you as a company are embarrassed without diversity goals. Not infrequently, a scandal was the reason for hastily setting up an entire diversity department. In the Netflix documentary White warm about the American fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch, you can see how their discriminatory personnel policy – only ‘beautiful’ white youths were allowed to work in the stores – was a reason to appoint a black man as head of diversity. Gucci hired in 2019 after the fashion house was criticized for a design with black facenot just one main diversity and inclusion i, but suddenly also offered a multicultural design fair, a global exchange program and a diversity and inclusion program. Long words that fit neatly into a press release; damage limited.
‘Inclusion’ suggests equality, while starting from dominance
Change without change
An often heard slogan in the D&I world is: ‘Diversity is asked to party, inclusion is asked to dance.’ And that is perhaps the most annoying and at the same time the most honest explanation. It suggests similarity – in English-speaking countries the sector is not called ‘DEI’ for nothing, the E stands for ‘equity capital‘, in other words: equality – while it starts with dominance.
Because the people who give the ‘party’ are of course not equal to the people who are allowed to come to the party; the guests. The guests may eat and drink with them, but they may not choose the garlands or decide what the party budget will be spent on. In other words, as much D&I is now implemented, it allows marginalized groups to participate in existing power relations, making them part of the status quo. But the status quo itself is unlikely to change.
“If the inclusion of black people in the machine of oppression is supposed to make the machine more efficient, that is not progress,” Angela Davis said in 2007 of George W. Bush’s “flawed” but right-wing administration — with black ministers Condoleezza Rice and the late Colin Powell. To her, it represented exactly what’s wrong with the cosmetics of the diversity industry: “The difference that makes no difference, the change that doesn’t change.”
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