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I was, for a time, loosely affiliated with an arts organization whose board included a crusading civil rights lawyer, a professor of Latin American studies, a strait-laced banker who was also an ordained minister, and two wealthy civic leaders (one gay, one straight), each of whom contributed serious money to the other’s political enemies.

A well-meaning foundation declined to consider a proposal from this organization because, an officer gently advised, the board had a “diversity problem.” The unspoken meaning, which was beyond dispute, was that all these assorted human beings, of different philosophies, hues, and sexual identities, were men.

Now, that was a problem, arguably enough. But a “diversity problem”? There are U.N. commissions more homogeneous than that board. It would have been an unconscionable gaffe to describe this as a “female problem,” but it would have been vastly more accurate.

The foundation never inquired about the many ways these folks differed from one another, or about the interesting effects their differences had on the arts group’s activities. “Diversity,” in the ordinary sense of the word, wasn’t really the officer’s concern. The foundation’s leaders believed, for reasons of both principle and practicality, that boards should not be all-male. Good for them. Unfortunately, they refused to say so. Bad for them.

The foundation officer, like many of her colleagues, kept a “diversity table” on organizations applying for grants. It showed the composition of boards and staff by gender, race, and ethnicity. But the words “gender, race, and ethnicity” were almost never used. Perhaps that’s because they are controversial, and the foundation lacked the courage of its convictions. If so, more’s the pity. But another, less damning explanation might simply be that this specific sense of DIVERSITY was part of the family code, and outsiders were not expected to know (or, sadder still, expected to care) that it referred strictly to three very important things.

Ironically, using words in such an idiosyncratic, private way raises a troubling question: When any group of people comes to speak in a language that most people are unlikely to understand, how “diverse” can that group really be?


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