A Person Can't Be ‘Diverse’

Why advocates are backing away from a theoretically helpful term that’s being misused in ways big and small

Ava DuVernay, director of "Selma" (Danny Moloshok / Reuters)

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, is one of the most visible and vocal advocates for diversity in the film industry. She does not, however, love being described quite that way. “We’re hearing a lot about diversity,” she said at Sundance, as reported by The New York Times. “I hate that word so, so much.”

Her rationale is that it’s a “medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue … It’s emotional for artists who are women and people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.” She prefers that the issue be talked about using terms like “inclusion” or “belonging.”

This isn’t the first time scorn’s been thrown at the word “diversity” from supporters of the ideal it’s meant to represent. In a Times magazine column last year, the journalist Anna Holmes argued that the term had lost much of its meaning. “In reality—which is to say, when applied to actual people, not flora, fauna, or financial securities—the notion of diversity feels more fraught, positioning one group (white, male Americans) as the default, and everyone else as the Other,” Holmes wrote. Among the people she quoted was DuVernay, who previewed the comments she’d later make at Sundance: “‘Diversity’ is like, ‘Ugh, I have to do diversity.’ I recognize and celebrate what it is, but that word, to me, is a disconnect.”

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.

There was an example of this confusion just yesterday. Variety ran an interview with Kristen Stewart where she talked about the need for women to take action to increase their own representation in the film industry. But the publication sold that interview with language saying Stewart was discussing “diversity.” Social media users blasted Stewart, a white woman, for seeming to blame racial minorities for their own oppression. That wasn’t really what she was doing at all, and Variety issued a correction. “Diversity,” used as a catchall, caught the wrong meaning.

There’s also a linguistic-logic problem here. If one black woman is a “diverse person,” is a group made up 100 percent of black women automatically a “diverse group”? By the more commonly understood use of the word, it’s not one.

How, then, to refer to people of color and women? How about … as “people of color and women”? If you’re talking about other categories—LGBT people, certain age cohorts, nationalities—name them. Or there are other terms that, while perhaps not super-catchy, can work. “Underrepresented populations” is one.

DuVernay’s objection to “diversity” seems to refer in part to the same conceptual weirdness that leads some people to describe individuals as “diverse.” The terminology usually accompanies an attempt to meet a goal deemed socially desirable at the moment—without actually naming the specific sort of people in need of that goal being met. Racial inequality is a real thing with a real history. Gender inequality is a different one. So it goes, down the list of marginalized groups. Many such inequalities may have some common causes and common solutions, but seeing all non-straight-white-males as one undifferentiated mass is not, traditionally, a tendency of those who want an inclusive society where historic injustices have been remedied. It is a tendency of those who don’t.