Doing ‘diversity’ right

Last week, at NPC’s event on diversity in the voluntary sector, I had to hold in a cheer when Asif from Birmingham-based charity brap said ‘I don’t like the word diversity. I prefer the word equality.’


Well, I recently completed a short course on social and political theory. It brought me face-to-face with the significance of language: how, while we shape words, words also shape us.

It left me thinking there’s something about the word ‘diversity’ that doesn’t really cut it, and one piece I read for my course points to why:

‘As bell hooks suggests, ‘within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture’ (1992: 21). The whiteness of organisations might be reproduced at the very moment they ’embrace diversity’, as if diversity is what adds spice and colour to ‘mainstream white culture’.

Sara Ahmed (2007) The Language of Diversity, in Ethnic and Racial Studies

It’s not just me. Language was a frustration for many of the charity leaders we interviewed for the research supporting our event. As well as finding ‘diversity’ woolly, many mentioned a wider fear of using the wrong words and being accused of racism, ableism, classism, sexism.

Between ‘well-meaning liberals’ worried about ‘seeming prejudiced’ and people who genuinely don’t know or care about how they exclude and harm others, we’ve had decades of inertia.

How we talk about all this does matter, though.

Thanks to Ahmed, now when I hear ‘diversity’ I don’t hear, as she calls it, ‘the social justice argument’. All I hear is let’s just add a mild sprinkling of seasoning to this otherwise same dish.

I worry that if we chase the word blindly it’ll lead us to tokenism, to superficial, polite, undisruptive changes. We don’t need to ‘add spice’. We need to fundamentally change what we cook.

So maybe, just as I’m doing right now, we’re focusing too much on talk and that’s holding back from real action. ‘Diversity’ is everywhere at the moment. The word seems to have brought some level of consensus, and there’s ostensibly some momentum. That’s great.

And sometimes we just need an imperfect short hand for things or we’ll get nothing done. Otherwise we risk doing the words and not the work. But walking the walk and talking the talk aren’t mutually exclusive.

So if we’re sticking with ‘diversity’, we need to keep our sights firmly on our why. Why are we doing this? What is the end goal?

Fundamentally, the charity sector ‘embracing diversity’ must be about making sure more voices have influence. Ensuring that as many people as possible have access to the influence that the sector has on how society is shaped. It’s about recognising the value of difference in making a difference.

If we keep returning to that, we might just achieve some meaningful action. We can, as Samuel Kasumu from inclusive boards said at the event, ‘make a plan, establish clear lines of accountability’ and actually get something done.

Because it can’t take another 20+ years of talk. Lack of action has real consequences. James Baldwin, true to form, put it best:

‘You always told me it takes time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?’

For some ideas about how, I encourage you to watch our event, if you haven’t already done so. Our speakers were inspiring and hopeful, and gave tangible advice for real change across the sector. Inclusive Boards and brap, who spoke, are both working to translate diversity ‘talk’ into reality.

Alternatively, you can see a summary of the event in tweets from attendees.

Also, check out our research, which gets to some of the reasons why the charity sector’s progress on all this has been so slow. The research lead and event speaker Dr Amina Memon wrote up her reflections here.


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