Diversity and Inclusion – Terminology

UPDATE (November 23, 2020): I’ve noticed that this post gets regular traffic since I wrote it January 2019. Society, and my own thinking, has evolved so I’m giving it an update. A few tweaks and new terms.

Lately I’ve been having a lot of talks with organizations and individuals about diversity and inclusion (as a reminder, last year I bolstered my interest in the topic with a certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College so I’m having more consultant conversations) and I find that everyone is using different terminology and struggling to get on the same page.  It feels the same as when digital media was evolving and everyone was using different buzzwords (i.e. information superhighway!) until some of the crazier ones dropped off and now it is all pretty much digital media.

So, I thought I would help the conversation by exploring some of these terms.  These are not fixed definitions but more how I have come to understand them or other people have explained them to me.  It might help.

Diversity: First let’s talk about what diversity is not.  It is not synonymous with gender parity or people of colour.  Diversity means a range of perspectives, backgrounds, viewpoints and more. It should include everyone including straight white able-bodied men (also in some circles known as SWAM – there’s an acronym for everything). If you had a team completely made up of people of colour it would not be diverse because there would be no white people on the team.  And if they were all straight and able-bodied it would not be diverse.  In some cases you can have a team that looks diverse but if they all graduated from Ryerson’s RTA School of Media, for example, they would not be diverse.

[I recognize that I set up the Bell Media Diverse Screenwriters Workshop while I was at the WGC but that was before I understood the proper use of the word diverse. Sorry!]

Inclusion: Inclusion is about creating an environment where a diversity of people feel comfortable working.  You can hire a wide range of individuals but if your work environment does not make them feel welcome, they will not stay or they will not work to the best of their ability.  Inclusion is about creating an environment where they can do their best work. If an environment is inclusive, then there is little need to worry about harassment.  Rather than having to find solutions to respond to harassment, the conditions would not occur for it to exist. Inclusion is often harder for organizations than hiring for diversity as this is where they need to change work culture.

Consider this example. In your team meetings do the loudest voices dominate the conversation?  A young Chinese woman once told me that in situations like that she would never say anything as she had been raised to give deference to authority, so the team thought she agreed with everything and had nothing to add.   When she moved to another job where the leadership style was to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard, she was able to contribute. In the second job she felt that she finally was able to do her best work.

Equity:  There is a school of thought that rather than focusing on diversity and inclusion, we should be looking at equity.  Equity refers to ensuring that everyone has what they need to succeed and takes into consideration the fact that some people may need more help to succeed than others.  The goal in equity is ensuring that everyone ends up in the same place – being the best that they can be.  Note that equity is often contrasted with equality, which is treating everyone the same.  You can treat two employees the same but is it fair if one is at a disadvantage.  For example, if one is dyslexic and the other is not, is it fair to give both a written test with a time limit and assess them the same? Equity would be giving the one with dyslexia a longer time limit.

Representation: In media we often talk about representation rather than diversity or inclusion.  Are stories from a variety of people being told? Can everyone see themselves on screen? Are the creators, funders and decision makers representative of the audience that they are trying to reach.  For me, representation is the end goal of diversity and inclusion strategies rather than another way of describing them.

Underserved: When trying to describe communities that are not being represented, people struggle to find an umbrella word. I have heard the word disadvantaged used but that has the connotation that unrepresented people or communities are low income and that is very much not the case. Non-mainstream is used but that assumes a definition of mainstream that we are in the middle of trying to change. Or people just list off a checklist of who they are trying to target: POC, indigenous, LGBTQ, women, disabled, newcomers, etc. Checklists unfortunately are essential if you are trying to measure progress, particularly if you are a government agency or government funded, but inevitably someone feels left out or given intersectionality unable to pick just one box to tick. I like to use the phrase ‘underserved communities’ as an umbrella term. It is easy to understand and doesn’t make judgments about the people in those communities or attempt to define who is in or not in the community.

Intersectionality: In the last definition I used the word intersectionality.  While it has been around for a while it seems to have been one of the buzzwords of 2018 as a lot of people clued in to it for the first time.  Intersectionality is the idea that people are not part of just one community but often multiples, with different experiences based on each one.  For example, a gay person of colour will have a different life experience than a straight person of colour or a white gay person. Inclusion strategies should keep in mind that people are rarely one thing. Any kind of measurement should take into account that people may want to tick off more than one box.

POC: In some circles POC, the acronym for People of Colour, is thought to be synonymous with black or African/Caribbean.  POC is an inclusive term that generally refers to all non-white people including Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, Asian and South Asian. This is a difficult concept for my mother who looks at skin tone and says ‘looks white to me’ (the irony being that my mother thinks of herself as white but her skin tone is brown since she is Anglo-Indian).  POC is about ethnicity and culture and not skin tone. And, as evidenced by my mother, self-identification.

BIPOC/IBPOC: I have seen this acronym spelled both ways but it means the same thing, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.  The choice to put Indigenous first is a conscious statement because Indigenous were in this country first.  The I is sometimes removed leaving BPOC if Indigenous are being represented separately or the jurisdiction is one where there are no Indigenous peoples. However, BIPOC is easier to say. It is usually an attempt to bring together different communities and reflect or encompass intersectionality.  In Canadian film and tv, BIPOC TV & Film is an example.

Racialized: Racialized or racialization is a term that is being used by some to mean non-white.  It started as a sociology phrase to identify racial groups but has become a replacement for racial minority or Visible Minority.  The Ontario Human Rights Commission says that race is a social construct to create differences based on people’s characteristics and the process of that social construction is Racialization.  While federal legislation uses the term Visible Minority, many groups prefer Racialized because in many parts of Canada, non-white people are not the minority and that is only going to grow. However, Racialized technically refers to all people as it is a social construct for all.  Usage may be changing the technical meaning of the word.

Visible Minority:  While in many ways this is an outmoded word, since in many parts of Canada those who are non-white are not the minority and this is only going to grow, it is still an often-used term because it is embedded in federal and provincial legislation like the Employment Equity Act. It also doesn’t reflect the fact that many people who would consider themselves non-white, may not be ‘visible’.  As with many problematic terms, it is also one coined from the perspective of the white person rather than from the identity of the non-white person.

Privilege: Privilege has become a very loaded word. It should not be.  Privilege at its most basic means rights or advantages based upon being part of a group. There is a great exercise that asks people to stand in a row and then take steps backward and forward depending on whether they have had certain life experiences.  Do they have a post-secondary education? Are they white? Are they female? Do they have a student loan? Are they gay? It is a great visual representation of the different forms of privilege and reminds us all that some aspect of our life is privileged and gives us advantages that other people do not have.  For example, an updated version of the exercise would have to ask: Do you have access to high speed broadband at an affordable price?

Decolonization: I will admit that this term was not on my radar when I first wrote this post in early 2019.  Strictly speaking it means the undoing of the process of colonization. It was originally coined to refer to the dismantling of imperial colonialism which started after WWI. It has now been expanded to go beyond independent statehood to the idea of dismantling colonial ideas that made the colonized feel inferior. In a Canadian context, it can be about self-determination but also reclaiming Indigenous cultural practices and world views and for non-Indigenous Canadians, including government, businesses, funders and broadcasters, to recognize and accept Canada’s colonial history and to work to undo the damage it caused.

Anti-Racism: Being anti-racist is taking concrete action to provide equitable opportunities to all people and specifically address the systemic racism inherent in many of our institutions.  Anti-racism can be actions taken to dismantle systemic racism or responses to individual actions of racism.

Marginalized: Marginalized people are those who have been pushed aside and prevented from fully participating in society. They may have been marginalized for many different reasons including race, gender, sexual orientation or ability so the term should not be used as a synonym for non-white or POC.

So there are ten [now fourteen] terms that I find myself dealing with on an almost daily basis.  Have I left anything out?  Do you agree or disagree with any of my explanations?

UPDATE:  At a conference on the weekend a speaker said that my fave word ‘underserved’ should be replaced by ‘excluded’.  It made me think about the two words.  Underserved means that a community is getting some service (i.e. opportunities) but not parity with other communities.  Excluded means that it is or they are completely excluded from any of those opportunities.  It’s not for me (or you) to decide if a community or a member of it feels excluded rather than underserved but I do think that parity is a continuum and not an in or out situation.  For me this is an example of how we need to continually think about the words that we use and check in with the audience to see if we are using words that they are comfortable with.


6 thoughts on “Diversity and Inclusion – Terminology

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  3. John Hennings

    Isn’t diversity a spectrum, though? Instead of describing groups who clearly represent a variety of demographics and life experiences as categorically “not diverse,” couldn’t we say more diverse or less diverse? If we have to be negative, we could say “not as diverse as it could be if it included ______”. Your opening paragraphs make it sound a little like it doesn’t count unless every possible category is represented, like we’re trying to get a royal flush.

    1. John Hennings

      It occurred to I should say something other than criticism, since I appreciated all your other points. Thanks for giving us the tools to think and communicate with one another about these issues more accurately.

    2. Kelly Lynne Ashton Post author

      Well, that certainly was not my intention as I agree with you that diversity is a continuum and to think otherwise is to have a checkbox way of thinking – which I am strongly against. My goal in this post was to try to shine some light on the real meaning of diversity and get people to stop using it as a synonym for POC so I might have lost some nuance while working to that goal.

      1. John Hennings

        Understood. Thanks for clarifying both your meaning and the intent behind it. Thanks also for the work you’re doing to help us all treat one another with kindness and respect.

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