The letters DEI have become a well-known shorthand for the words diversity, equity, and inclusion, and those three words have come to represent much more than any dictionary definition would imply. In the overlapping and cross-pollinating social worlds of K-12 education, higher education, NGOs, non-profits, the corporate sector, and various levels of local and federal government, the past decade has witnessed the rapid and widespread adoption of a particular approach to talking about and addressing questions of race, gender, social inequality, and cultural diversity, and DEI has come to symbolize and refer to that diffuse yet amazingly standardized approach. The purpose of this essay is to share insights from an ongoing inquiry into what DEI has come to mean, represent, and imply, and to point toward ways that we can work together to build on the good intentions and aspirations of the DEI movement and industry while making significant changes and course-corrections to enable more positive outcomes for our society and planet.
The twists and turns of cultural diffusion and social change are not always what they seem at first glance, and are often tinged with irony, paradox, contradiction, and unexpected consequences. As our social, cultural, and technological world grows more complex and confusing, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what is happening, due in part to the ever-increasing assortment of perspectives that permeate our media and experience. The meanings, purposes, and cumulative effects of DEI in our society are all contested and impossible to determine exactly, but if we tread carefully and keep our eyes on the prize of shared understanding, always open to new insights and shifts in perspective, we can find our way along the road that we need to travel together. As will become clear as we venture down the path of this essay, one of our primary tasks is the refinement and clarification of the language we use to communicate. And one of the proposals we will come to along the way, as evoked by the essay title, is to move toward the language and substantiation of empathy and integration, and away from language that serves to divide, confuse, or mislead.
Our more-than-human world is more than a language game, however, and we must attend not only to our words but also to the qualities and values that we embody and promote. It is with this in mind that I intend to argue for some significant changes to the DEI paradigm—its words, injunctions, assumptions, arguments, and systems of relations must all be improved to ensure they are truly in service of humanity.