Don't call me diverse! Unpacking diversity

"Hautfarben" - 12 different shades of skin

Recently, I bought a pack of coloring pens. On the front side, a beautifully lettered print saying “Hautfarben” (skin color in German). Inside, 12 different pens, 12 different shades that skin can have: plain white, the peachy salmon which is usually referred to as “skin color” in Germany, multiple shades of light brown, some with yellow, others with more reddish undertones, and then the lavish, earthy brown tones, dark, darker, ebony black. Thanks to these pens, kids can finally draw themselves and their friends the way they really look like, it says on the backside. I try to determine which color comes closest to my skin tone but I can't decide. None of them is yellow enough, I think. As much as it hurts, it is engrained into my brain and I have a hard time letting go. Slanted eyes. Black hair. Yellow skin. The Asian. The Chinese. The Chink.

What do you think of when you hear the word “diversity”? One of the first things that come to my mind is an H&M advert, none in particular, just one of those stylized images with a bunch of good-looking people in fashionable clothes, and, inevitably, there is a Black person with an afro, someone who looks East-Asian, someone brown-skinned, a red haired woman, perhaps a skinny white girl with a shaved head, a non-binary person with a neon buzzcut. And this, my own reaction, is the crystal-clear epitomization of a problem: diversity tends to lack depth, everyone kind of knows what it is but once you dig deeper and things get more complex, the silence grows. It is easier and more comfortable to stick with the glossy surface.

I am diverse, you are diverse, they are diverse

Something strange happened at work. During several weeks, we planned the upcoming hiring process of new team members, and suddenly, there it was, the word “diverse”. It had snuck into our vocabulary because we wanted our team to be as diverse as possible. But instead of describing us as a group, it was used as an adjective to refer to a person. We would say: “The applicant is diverse” or “We want a diverse person” or even “She is not really diverse”, which struck me as odd and slightly absurd. My partner and I started to jokingly refer to all sorts of things as “diverse” — a pear among apples in the fruit basket, or a paper cup that had ended up in the wrong garbage can. But even those silly jokes could not change the fact that I felt strangely bothered.

It helped, as it often does (and then sometimes, it doesn’t), when I eventually acknowledged and gave space to the uncomfortableness, the irritation. I realized that we used the word and the concept in a way that made it sound hollow and blurred its true meaning. This is not a problem specific to us — “diverse” is often used synonymously with “other”; something someone brings from the outside to the table to make those on the inside somehow… better. Other, in turn, rings suspiciously like random or rest or everything else that doesn’t really fit in any existing category. Like labeling every kind of music that isn’t white and Western “world music”. Doing so emphasizes the contrast between an unspoken norm and everything outside of it.

Diversity and unequal power relations

Q: So what does diversity actually mean?

A: It can mean very different things, depending on the context.

Individuals who are considered to increase diversity are often defined by what they are not: straight, white, male, academic, middle-class, able-bodied. When people talk about lacking diversity in Hollywood, they usually mean that too many actors, directors, screen writers, etc. are white. Diversity, as a consequence, is added by everyone else who does not fit into that norm, all thrown into one category that is defined by what it is not: white.¹

The Merriam Webster defines diverse as “differing from one another” or “composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities”, which implies that an individual can’t be diverse — it is not one person’s burden to bring in diversity but the responsibility of a group. Power relations are not reflected in this definition; I visualize it like some kind of stellar constellation, a bunch of stars making up a beautiful whole. Diversity as it is often being discusses these days, however, feels more like the solar system — planets circulating around a central point, a bright, powerful center, and the further they are from that center, the less powerful they are. In order to empower the planets at the periphery, we must examine why the center holds that overwhelming amount of power. It is a matter of shifting focus.²


What am I?

One of the reasons why talking about diversity often makes me uncomfortable is that I it confronts me with an odd question: am I myself considered “diverse”? And is that something one would even want to be? This in turn evokes unpleasant associations with another question: “What am I? / What are you?” (PoC get that question all the time). On the one hand, I want my experiences as a Woman of Color to be valued and acknowledged. On the other hand, however, I do not want to be singled out as “diverse”, “other”, “different [from us]”, I simply want to get to be German; my own, layered, conflicting version of it. The conundrum is confusing: I do not want to be reduced to my Otherness and treated accordingly, but I also don’t want my existence, as privileged as it may be, to be conflated with being a white native-born German. Because in that case, I suddenly find myself at the “non-diverse” end of the spectrum which makes things even worse: Being put in the same category as my white co-workers, for instance, erases my experiences as a Korean adoptee growing up in Germany. And if that part of my identity is not acknowledged, who am I, then?

During one of our team meetings, we talked about “diverse applicants” again and I seriously felt like crying. Suddenly though, one of my white co-workers cried out: “Guys, can we PLEASE STOP calling people diverse? That’s fucked up!” I wish I could have hugged her but we were online, so I drew a heart with my finger on her face in the zoom square and thanked her later. I don't want to convey a wrong impression: Having discussions about (lacking) diversity in a team that is made up of 50% PoC is as astounding as it is rare. Many would agree that we are proof of a functioning and successful multicultural society in which PoC are embraced as an integral part of the big “We”. And in many ways, we are. So why do we even problematize it? And what do we mean when we say: “We want more diversity”?

Unpacking diversity

The answers are, as they tend to be so often, wrapped in more questions. The first one is: What does diversity actually mean? And what does it mean for us specifically? Being non-white and German, to name but one example, implies a multitude of experiences, a vast variety of being that must not be conflated and blurred: I am adopted, others were born here to foreign parents or moved to Germany when they were kids, and then there are also those who came to Germany as adults, as refugees or students or spouses or workers and got granted citizenship. Each of us grew up in an entirely different environment – conservative or liberal, religious or secular, non-white or white, academic or working class. Each of us has experienced privilege and oppression in their own way. Who gets to decide who is German and who isn’t? Where do we draw the boundaries? How do we find a balance between rejecting the limitations of categories and simultaneously re-define and embrace them?


The second question is: WHY is it that you want more diversity? In a work setting, I can think of the following answers:

1) Because it looks good on the outside.

Superficial as this may sound, it is a valid point. For many PoC, particularly those who have experienced racism at their previous workplaces, it makes a big difference to see other PoC in the company/organization they apply to. Personally, I would not have applied for my current job if there had only been white people on the team. I rarely feel comfortable in all-white settings and I certainly do not want to feel like the token PoC. Hiring more people of color thus can kick off a positive feedback circle: More PoC feel encouraged to apply, seeing themselves represented. Once they are on board, they can impact the workplace culture and build alliances to further foster inclusion and empowerment.

2) For the sake of credibility.

It’s not only that I do not want to work in an all-white team — I would have highly doubted the organization’s approach. To work in the field of migration and inclusion but fail to hire people with first-hand experiences just proves that you haven’t understood some crucial things. This is perhaps one of the more obvious cases but honestly, no matter what field you work in — if you claim to be international and progressive, to value different perspectives and think outside the box, to embrace solidarity and foster participation (and all the other things modern companies, start-ups and NGOs pride themselves on), this HAS to show in your hiring policy. Otherwise, it is just empty buzzwords, a see-through façade that protects the very structures it is built upon.

3) For the empowerment of disadvantaged individuals and groups.

If part of your work goals is the empowerment of migrants and PoC, one simple and direct way to pursue that is by hiring them. PoC often face discrimination on the labor market. Studies show that the chances to get invited to an interview are significantly lower if your name indicates that you are Black, Arabic or may come from any other country that marks you as “immigrant” rather than “expat”.³ Whether you wear a hijab, have a Persian name, or are born in North Africa — it is horrifying how much prejudice people face solely based on their names and appearance, even those born and raised in Germany. For PoC who have moved here recently, the situation is usually infinitely more difficult for they may lack language skills, a social network and knowledge of the German labor market. At the same time, they are often under immense pressure by the authorities that base their decisions about the migration status on financial resources.

4) Because you value different perspectives.

Without this aspect, all the previous ones are pointless. You have to honestly believe that more diversity means an overall improvement of your work, otherwise you end up being just another company plastering its façade with fashionable-looking individuals, while the power and money remain elsewhere. Skills are important. But at the end of the day, everyone can acquire them. You can learn to write applications and reports, how to keep books and give presentations. Experiences, on the other hand, can only be made, with you own body, in your own life. Different cultures and countries yield different professionals, so if you only ever look to hire people who have all the "right" work experiences, skills, and qualifications, you are very likely going to end up hiring the same profile again and again. Does that sound like a progressive, innovative, flexible work culture and ethic?

My colored pencils won't solve the problem of discrimination and white supremacy. The same goes for a more correct handling and enriched understanding of the concept and word "diversity". Even achieving true work-place equality would not cause the existing structures to crumble over night. But all of these things help to push us into the right direction. If those pens can enable a child to draw themselves the way they actually look, if they remind my 34-year old self that my skin isn't yellow, that's quite powerful! And if a small organization is willing to honestly engage with questions of diversity, inclusion and empowerment, that too can go a long way.

Perhaps, "diverse" should not be used as a characteristic, an adjective, when in fact, it is a verb. It is not something you are or you have, it's something you do.

¹ It is common to use the term mainly with regards to gender and ethnic diversity. This comes with its own set of problems, which Raul Krauthausen, a German inclusion and accessibility activist, explains in this excellent article. But as the organization I work with focuses on immigrants and refugees, we naturally have a particular focus on questions of race and nationality.

² In her book "Hope in the Dark", Rebecca Solnit explores questions of light and darkness, center and periphery, and she writes: "power comes from the shadows and the margins, [...] our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the lime light of center stage."

³ Most East-Asian people excepted — we often actually benefit from positive stereotypes of being diligent, hard-working, and quiet. That and my 100% German-sounding name of course add significantly to my own privileged position.

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