Monday, September 14, 2015

Diversity and Coercive Assimilationism

“Diversity talk” is all around us – in schools, workplaces, and businesses.   Everyone seems to want to “be diverse” but few people seem to agree what that means precisely.  Does diversity mean two of every “other” that is not a member of the dominant group?  Does it apply only to immutable characteristics such as race, gender, or ethnicity?  Or is diversity expansively defined to include differences along ideological, class, and geographical lines?  In the end, the pursuit of diversity raises more questions than it provides answers.

As I highlight in a recent article, one dimension of diversity rarely addressed is intra-group differences, particularly among minority groups.  This oversight lends itself to “check the box” approaches to diversity where success is based on appearances – what I call the “colorful picture” syndrome.  So long as we can look at a snapshot of the institution and see people that look different in terms of skin color, gender, ethnicity, religion, and age; we can rest assured that we have demonstrated our commitment to diversity. 

However, the picture (as lovely as it may be) does not reveal the differences among members of the same minority groups.  For example, the business may boast a high percentage of female supervisors while failing to recognize that only women who fit certain gender stereotypes are promoted: deferential, perpetually pleasant, soft spoken, and not overtly ambitious.  Similarly, the Muslim Americans hired downplay or cover altogether their religious identities, dress in Western attire, and do not request religious accommodations.  This soon transforms into a process that allows only “good women,” “good Muslims,” or “good others” into the institution.  And what determines the goodness of a minority group is whether their identity performance assimilates into the dominant group’s behavior and norms so as to minimize the latter’s discomfort or inconvenience.

Assuming one objective of diversity is to create an environment where non-dominant groups have equal opportunities as dominant groups to thrive in an institution; we must recognize the stereotypes and essentialization that diversity efforts may perpetuate.  It is not merely about having a certain number of women, African Americans, Muslims, or Latinos in a particular institution.  Rather, meaningful diversity is about providing the same space for intra-group differences among members of minority groups as is granted to individuals within the dominant group.   

So before institutions “celebrate diversity,” they should ask themselves what price members of the minority group must pay in order to be included in the celebration.  And if it is higher than the majority group, then it is time rethink what we mean by diversity.

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