Definition of Terms

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Diversity. Inclusion. Equity.

We see these terms used all over the place, but what do they really mean? What’s the difference between them? The following is an attempt to give a little clarity and help us all understand each other a little better.

Let’s start with Diversity. Institutions that are at the beginning of their journey into social justice often talk about diversity. The definition of diversity, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”

What this definition doesn’t offer us, though, is a sense of when we have achieved diversity and when we just think we have. For example, I was talking to a colleague recently about a particular organization. I started out by saying that their staff is fairly racially diverse, but when my colleague asked me to enumerate the people of color, I realized that the staff was in fact overwhelmingly white. The norm of Seattle institutions consisting of 99% white people led me to think that having more than just one or two people of color on staff meant that the organization was doing well recruiting for (and retaining) racial diversity. Actually counting how many people with marginalized identities are at an institution helps us understand whether the institution is in fact diverse.

In addition, having diversity at an institution does not mean that people with marginalized identities feel comfortable. Take gendered bathrooms as an example. Your organization might have a nonbinary person on staff, but if your workspace provides only binary-gendered bathrooms, how comfortable is that person likely to be working there? So, diversity only gets us part of the way down the road to justice.

Now we’ll move on to Inclusion. Inclusion sounds great, doesn’t it? It often gets added on to diversity once an organization has realized that diversity alone isn’t going to do the full job. Inclusion means everyone has a voice, and they are all welcomed into the group. Including people is certainly a positive action, but if we’re not careful it can lead to tokenism. Tokenism is inclusion without equity; it is making sure your committee looks diverse but doesn’t challenge the given power structure or make anyone uncomfortable. Tokenism is asking people who have marginalized identities to stand with you but not be their full authentic selves. Inclusion gets us a little further along, but we’re not done yet.

How about Equity? Let’s go back to Merriam Webster. Their definition of equity reads, “justice according to natural law or right; specifically: freedom from bias or favoritism.” Equity is the result of a diversity of identities being included in, heard, and responded to by the given power structure. We cannot have equity without diversity and inclusion. Equity takes into account the systemic and structural barriers people with marginalized identities face, and it attempts to mitigate the effects of those barriers. It asks that we take people for whom they are, honoring their full selves without asking them to hide or tone down any part. Equity is the final piece of the puzzle, but it is hard to achieve.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity all work together to create a world that is more just. Within this work, however, we have to constantly remind ourselves about nuance and context. This is where intersectionality comes in, the understanding that people hold various identities and that some of them are more privileged than others depending on the immediate context. I will save intersectionality for another article, but if you’re interested, here’s a quick primer and links to more articles.


P.S. Much of my learning about social justice comes from people of color, especially women of color. I owe a debt of gratitude to the work that was done before me and continues today.

© 2018 Judy Blair LLC