Lesson 1.6

How To Talk About Differences & Diversity

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key concepts below:


Key Concepts:


It’s hard to collaborate when you don’t agree on a common vocabulary, so let’s get a few things straight:

“Diversity” means an array of things that are different.

  • However, the word “diversity” is often used by people who mean to say “race” or “gender” but are uncomfortable coming out and saying those things. This makes talking about differences more complicated than it needs to be.

  • I suggest that you always try to specify what kind of diversity when you use that word. Use adjectives like “demographic diversity” or “generational diversity” or “racial diversity” or “cognitive diversity,” so everyone knows what you are actually talking about.

  • And just say “differences” when you are talking in blanket terms.

  • This also helps eliminate the potential for political charge that can come with the blanket term “diversity.”

  • Likewise, calling someone a “diverse” person is not specific or helpful—and can even be offensive. Often (in America, especially) people say this when they actually mean “person of color” or “woman.” It is much more helpful and less awkward just say that and not hide behind euphemisms.

“Discrimination” is about taking away people’s power

  • Discrimination is about seeing and treating people differently. By strict definition of the word, discrimination is about noticing differences and adjusting for them.

    • By this definition, discrimination can be perfectly valid and appropriate, even kind: E.g. Noticing that there is a tall person and a short person getting on the airplane, and offering the tall person a seat with more leg room.

    • By this definition, discrimination can also be cruel and counterproductive to good teamwork: E.g. Noticing that there is a tall person and a short person getting on the airplane, and making mean remarks about their height.

  • In today’s social and cultural context, what we’re usually talking about when we say “discrimination” has to do with creating power dynamics that favor some people and not others.

    • Any act, big or small, that ends up reducing a person’s power based on their being different is discrimination.

    • One of the most common acts of discrimination is saying things that cut people down based on their identity or through implication of their belonging to a particular group.

    • But, as is often the case, discriminatory actions speak loudly.

This is why the term “micro-aggression” is a key one to understand when it comes to differences:

  • A micro-aggression is a small discriminatory act (either a deliberately hostile act or an inadvertently cutting act that reduces someone’s power) which brings about painful feelings because of an accumulation of similar acts throughout the receiving person's life.

  • Put more simply: a micro-aggression is a straw that threatens to break a camel's back. In isolation it's maybe not so bad, but in context of the rest of the burden, it sucks a lot.

    • E.g. When a female doctor walks in a room and someone assumes she’s a nurse, this is a micro-aggression because the implication is that women are less capable than men. A person can be forgiven for this if they grew up in a society where this implication is reinforced, but if that is the case, then the doctor has had this happen a lot of times, which hurts.

    • E.g. When an Asian-American, born in the United States, is complimented for “having good English,” this is a micro-aggression because it implies that they are not a true American. Even though this is ostensibly a compliment, you wouldn’t give this compliment to a Caucasian-American, so it ends up implying that the Asian-American person is somehow less than.

  • Just because an act diminishes someone's power doesn't mean the actor is a bad person—often it's unintentional. This is not an excuse to continue doing the offensive act, but it is grounds for benefit of doubt until the offender is educated about the blind spot they have.

  • Also: just because someone doesn't like something you do doesn't make what you did a micro-aggression. There's a difference between being disappointed and truly having your power taken away from you.

  • We’ll talk about the antidote to micro-aggressions later in this course!

Sometimes it is awkward to talk about differences, or to address discrimination or micro-aggressions that threaten to take away people’s power.

  • But the worst thing you can do is hesitate or poo poo around something important.

  • If you’re worried about using the wrong term around someone who is different than you, open up to them about this worry.

  • Good people will be merciful if you show them your intentions are good, and they will teach you how they prefer to be referred to.