I recently found myself on two conference calls with two separate clients, both of whom I’ve worked with for years and take deep pride in the work we’ve been able to accomplish together. Both organizations focus on specific geographic areas in which their work requires a very real amount of convincing when it comes to the existence of systemic racism.

During my morning call, a participant from the first organization shared, “I’m worried about our continual use of the word ‘anti-racist.’ It’s becoming harder and harder for the communities we work in to hear us when the first thing they see in our materials is the word ‘racist’.”

“Perhaps,” she offered, “We could use the word ‘equity’ instead.”

My afternoon call surfaced a similar sentiment, except this time, the participant mentioned that the word ‘equity’ was a growing nonstarter in their geographic region and was looking for a word that would get them the outcomes they wanted, but in such a way that didn’t set off the proverbial alarms.

After finishing both calls, my own internal alarms began to sound.

The Power and Peril of Language

In the ever-evolving landscape of diversity, equity, and inclusion, language has always served as both a bridge and a barrier. It’s the tool we use to communicate our values, articulate our goals, and advocate for change, but it’s also a reflection of the complexities and imperfections inherent in the work we do. While we strive for precision and integrity in our terminology, the reality is that the language of DEI has never been and never will be perfect.

One of the challenges of DEI language is its susceptibility to misinterpretation and appropriation. Words like “diversity” can be diluted into buzzwords, losing their depth and significance. Similarly, terms like “equity” and “inclusion” may carry different meanings for different people, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts.

In a vacuum, the solution to these challenges seems simple: time and education. Misunderstandings and conflict are natural byproducts of linguistic development, and the demystification of certain terms as well as their connection to a larger context is a substantial part of what most DEI practitioners spend their time working through.

Navigating The Imperfect

Since our inception, True North EDI has constantly had to navigate and build in caveats for imperfect (and sometimes even problematic) language. The words “diversity” and “inclusion” are prime examples. Who is being diversified? Do all aspects of human variation become equalized contributions to a diverse environment? The reality is we aren’t talking about diversity for diversity’s sake; we’re illuminating the reality of specific groups that have been historically and institutionally marginalized and/or oppressed.

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