How we talk about diversity is changing

By Christine Hawes | Guest Column

Ed. note: This column first appeared as part of the CBJ’s special series, (un)Hired Help, exploring diversity in the workplace. You can read the members-only series installment here.

As a 51-year-old lesbian who has been open at my workplaces since pre-Ellen, I’ve witnessed an evolution in workplace diversity, through the lens of my LGBTQ identity.

In the early 1990s, we all accepted the word “tolerance” as the goal. Later, “acceptance” became the mission. Flash to 2009-ish, and you heard people seeking “affirming” workplaces and places of worship.

Parallel to this gradual change in language were adjustments in how we talk about ethnicity, race and heritage. Early on, it was about “minorities.” That morphed into “diversity” and “inclusion.”

In recent years, we have a new word that pulls it all together: intersectionality.

It’s formidable in more ways than its seven syllables. With intersectionality, previously distinct struggles merge into one, where sexual, gender, ethnic, political and societal minorities all become about “marginalization,” or being pushed to the side.

More importantly, the term speaks to a shift in power. Previous terms were about one group giving its presumed, inherent power to another. Intersectionality crumbles that construct. It’s about different interests connecting.

No longer is a more powerful party graciously carving out the voice for a weaker party. Instead, intersectionality says, “this is how it is. Different qualities affect each other. We are traveling different roads, coming from different origins and heading to different destinations. But we’re all intersecting and affected — some more so than others.”

What does this shift in language and context mean in the workplace, among bosses and co-workers — and customers, for that matter?

For one, it’s impossible and unacceptable today to simply relegate “inclusion” to a committee, a panel or a liaison. Gone are the days when delegating diversity was enough.

Today, everyone needs to be involved and interacting, to the point where striving to connect with perspectives and histories different than your own becomes almost second-nature. And those expectations extend beyond co-workers, to the customers themselves.

This presents many challenges, some unique to Iowans. Racial strife is growing nationwide, while LGBTQ acceptance is actually diminishing. And in our unusually homogeneous state, it’s even harder, where 91 percent of the population is white and a majority of residents may have never even worked alongside a person of color, let alone an openly LGBTQ person.

Even I am barely qualified to speak of intersectionality, which my writing colleague and activist Latisha McDaniel Grife first helped me discover was rooted in descriptions of the experiences of black women.

Here are the broad tips I’ve found most helpful in my own journey — and which other workers, bosses and customers may also find helpful in honoring intersectionality:

  • Recognize that the privileged among us need to be a direct part of the conversations and actions. The ones who have benefited the most from historic imbalances know the least about them. We can’t help sort this out without the knowledge that comes from being directly involved.
  • Realize that today, it’s about more than being “sensitive.” It’s illegal to act on prejudice.
  • See “intersectionality” as a basic tenet of relationships and being a compassionate person, rather than some new thing you’re trying to grasp.


Finally, accept that intersectionality is constantly evolving. We once referred to the “gay community,” but now use that unwieldy but inclusive LGBTQ acronym. “Handicapped” became “differently abled” before evolving to today’s preferred “disabled,” which in itself was once considered an offensive phrase that focused on the ability rather than the person.

If it helps, think of ”intersectionality” as an endless pursuit of the kind of humility your pastor or schoolteacher encourages you to have. Take a step back from yourself and think in terms of “what do I not know and need to work on” rather than “here’s what I know.”

As Ms. Grife wrote in one of her recent columns, be ready to both make mistakes and receive critical feedback from people you may have once chosen to ignore because you thought you had nothing in common with them.

Put on your learning hat, and keep it there. •

Christine Hawes is executive editor of The Real MainStream, a statewide publication with a progressive perspective, and a journalist living in Iowa City.