Why is diversity so important?

Diversity is a new hot topic. In all branches of social life, we’re seeing sentiments expressing a desire for more diversity. Calls for fighting for a more inclusive, diverse society happen regularly. And rightly so, because we’re living in a society in which people are disadvantaged and excluded. This happens on an individual basis, on a group level, as well as structurally. No matter how confronting, it’s an undeniable fact, for which countless news articles, social media messages, personal stories, and studies can be provided. Diversity needs our attention.

Uncomfortable question
I can acknowledge that this is something people are fighting for. As a student of Cultural Anthropology, I think about diversity of people and culture on a daily basis. That’s self-evident, because acknowledging diversity is the foundation of study programmes like anthropology. As an anthropologist, I’m also learning to be critical, to pay attention to things that aren’t in the foreground. All this means that, recently, I have come across an uncomfortable question regarding diversity: why are we fighting for more diversity in the first place? Why is it important? Uncomfortable, because this question is never asked, and uncomfortable, because it’s evident.

However, there are important issues within the not-asking why. Apparently, diversity is something we all understand. It’s implicit, you can read it between the lines. That’s dangerous, if you ask me. The meaning and reasons of the why aren’t objective, and therefore can be transformed. In many conversations, large institutions and political bodies dominate the playing field – especially at a moment when political parties are put up against each other.

Physical representation
So why is diversity important? Although I’ve never asked anyone this question, for reasons of discomfort, I do see the importance of reflecting on this subject. My observation is that when the societal debate focuses on diversity, it’s often about representation. This happens in the translation to policy decisions and implementations, where diversity is often reduced to physical representation. The face of a woman, a person of colour, someone from the LGBTQ+ community, etcetera. Look, for instance, at the solutions that are offered to solve the lack of diversity: a women’s quota at work, more critical selection procedures, and more people of colour in politics.

Although representation is, in some sense, necessary, I’m also seeing that this focus on physical representation means that other reasons for more diversity have moved to the background. Representation issues seem to be important only to marginalised groups. After all, it’s about actively showing this group in a public environment. The pitfall, then, is that it seems as though diversity is only relevant for those marginalised groups. That’s a shame, because acknowledging multiple interests would be a valuable addition to our concept of diversity, and would complement the already-chosen path to more diversity.

If the importance of diversity isn’t just about physical representation, then what else is it about? In my second year of studying cultural anthropology, I became acquainted with the term “intersectionality”. Sociologist Lutz, who specialises in gender studies, describes intersectionality as “A heuristic device or a method that is particularly helpful in detecting the overlapping and co-construction of visible and, at first sight, invisible strands of inequality.” (Lutz, 2001). Lutz refers to giving attention to numerous axes of inequality, who produce and reproduce structures and constructs in conjunction with each other.

I was taught at the time that this way of looking at social issues is important. Firstly because the axes of inequality aren’t always highlighted, and secondly because it can show different sides to a story. When, for instance, you ask people with different heritage and social positions about their experience of a single event, the answers can contain a world of difference. The fundamental thing about this concept is that human differences matter, whether that’s ethnicity, gender, age, or cultural background.

Listening to sounds
To me, it specifically means: if I want to understand something well, I should listen to sounds from multiple perspectives. And if we’re talking about representation, it’s the representation of the content of these sounds that also matters. In my studies and daily life, it means that it’s crucial to actively search for different perspectives, and to see which axes of inequality exist between me and the person I’m talking to.

I myself am a woman, Vietnamese, and as a 22-year-old, I’m seen as a young adult. Three examples of axes of inequality, that shape the glasses through which I see the world, and that shape the frameworks and content of my stories. It surprises me that I only learnt of this term around my 22nd year of life, since – looking back – I’m convinced they should be exclamation points in all the knowledge I gain as a student and as a human.

Reality is diverse
Although I found the concept intriguing at the time, I now understand so much more about what it means, especially with regards to the topic of diversity. In the first place, diversity is about showing the differences in people. That way, you create a stronger foundation for recognition and reward. It’s also about diversity as a foundation for knowledge that’s closer to reality; after all, reality is diverse.

This reason is perhaps included in the call for more representation of marginalised groups, but was lost in translation to concrete solutions. As humans, we constantly encounter individuals with differences. These differences enrich our knowledge. Attention to these differences in the shape of diversity makes our knowledge more valuable. Let’s not forget this in our discomfort.

Tags: diversity