These complaints are all, on some level, about something ineffable. They refer to a feeling—the feeling that a term that once stood for an important and radical idea has become an empty buzzword, or even a deceitful one. You can see the evidence to back up this impression in a related and subtly unsettling linguistic trend toward using “diverse” to describe individuals.
In the press release announcing changes in response to the outcry over the fact that all 20 Oscar-nominated actors were white for the second year in a row, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences said that its board was committed to “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.” Doubling the number of diverse members. The Academy didn’t say in that sentence that it wanted its membership to be more diverse. It said it wanted a higher number of diverse members. Which implies that a sole human can be “diverse.”
Here, by contrast, is the Merriam-Webster definition of the word: “different from each other,” or “made up of people or things that are different from each other.” But to have an “each other” you need to have multiple people or things. You need to have a group.
From the context of the press release and the ongoing debate it referenced, the Academy appeared to mean “people of color” when it said “diverse members.” Women, another underrepresented group who the Oscars want to include, were already mentioned in the sentence. Political viewpoints, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and other identity markers have not been major parts of the conversation around this topic this year and have not been mentioned in follow-up explanations from the Academy. “People of color” have, though.
There’s something inherently depersonalizing about calling a person “diverse.” Holmes’s article cited another instance that puts a fine point on this: “We have two new partners who are so diverse I have a challenge pronouncing their names,” joked the venture capitalist John Doerr at a talk where he was to discuss, yes, diversity. He quickly apologized.
And earlier this month, CBS said it would shoot a Nancy Drew TV show whose heroine would differ from the past popular image of Drew in a crucial way. “She is diverse, that is the way she is written,” president Glenn Geller told The Hollywood Reporter. “[She will] not [be] Caucasian … I’d be open to any ethnicity.”
The three examples above are all from people or institutions attempting to increase diversity (or, if you prefer, inclusivity or belonging). But they are also pretty clear examples of how diversity—a means, an outcome—can erase the very distinctions that makes it necessary in the first place.
You could argue that this is simply how language works. We don’t have a great, simple word to use to indicate “not a white guy”; if everyone is coming to understand “diverse” as a convenient way to mean that, why complain? But the truth is that not everyone is coming to understand that, and it’s not clear that everyone should. Sometimes the problem for which “diversity” is a solution involves gender and race and sexuality and socioeconomic status and any number of additional distinctions; other times, it’s only one of those things.