It has long been a pet peeve of mine that the word diverse is widely misused in the English language. Diverse is defined by Merriam-Webster (my favorite dictionary) as:
- differing from one another
- composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities
Unfortunately, diverse gets misused to refer to people or things that differ not from one another, but from what is considered to be mainstream, dominant, or the cultural norm.
- racially diverse (or just diverse) being used to mean “someone who isn’t white”
- neurodiverse being used to mean “someone who isn’t neurotypical”
- gender diverse being used to mean “someone who isn’t cisgender”*
If you follow this thinking to the root, it’s based on the idea that there is a neutral, majority, dominant way of being, and that diversity is the addition of non-normative elements to that supposedly “default” environment. This is a falsehood. The truth is that diversity is what humanity inherently contains—we all differ from one another.
The idea that there is such a thing as “normal” or “neutral” is a lie. Not only does it uphold certain identities and experiences as best by virtue of their normalcy and marginalize other ways of being, it also sends the message that there is a universal, singular experience of all of the things that are considered “normal”: a universal white experience, a universal straight experience, a universal nondisabled experience, and so on. This is also a harmful untruth.
So it may seem like a small act to use the word diverse in a manner that is true to its dictionary definition, but it’s a small act with big ripple effects when you refuse to buy into a system that teaches us what “normal” is and then defines everything else as Other. Diverse is not Other. Diverse describes the collective beauty of humanity.
What’s your take on diverse? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!
Notes: This post was updated slightly on May 18, 2021. A version of this flowchart and accompanying text was originally published in 2013 at Roots Grow the Tree. Many thanks to Alice Sofiasdiakonos for introducing me to the excellent work of Dr. Nick Walker.
*Cisgender means non-trans. It bears noting that gender diverse is being increasingly used in the Global South and in international contexts to refer to everyone whose genders don’t conform to gender binary cultural expectations; see “Ask a Radical Copyeditor: What’s the Best Way to Refer to Everyone Who Isn’t Cis?” for more.
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17 thoughts on “Should I Use the Adjective “Diverse”?”
Would it be fair to say that a group can be diverse, but not an individual? And even for a group, it means that, for example, a racially diverse group is composed of people of many races, not just people who aren’t white!
That’s exactly right. A diverse group is one that is varied, not one that is non-normative. So a racially diverse group includes folks of many different races, a neurodiverse group includes people whose brains work in many different ways, and a gender diverse group includes people of many different gender identities/expressions. The key with “diverse” is to use it to describe people or things that vary from one another, not from what society considers “normal.”
For anyone interested in exploring this, really encourage having a look at Sara Ahmed’s wonderful work.
why am I just discovering this blog? Never too late for a good thing!
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So glad you wrote this! I didn’t even know. Had it sent to me after I wrote this: https://jodiannburey.com/2017/11/12/just-a-chups-2-stop-calling-me-diverse/
Great piece, Jodi-Ann! I love how you talked about power. Thank you!
Also, quit using it as an adjective to describe singular nouns, as in “a diverse person”! Using it both oppressively and nonsensically at the same time drives me batty. You can’t make it any more obvious that you don’t know the meaning of the word and are using it to mean “not white” when use use it to describe a singular noun.
Ha. I just noticed and read the flow chart. Whoops! Thanks for the excellent visual for my pet peeve! I’ll be using that in the future!
As one of the people involved in creating a gender diverse Buddhist sangha (community of people) online, we thought about this a lot, and it comes up often in discussions, with us having to point out to both allies and antagonists that it’s not a descriptor for individuals.
I’d like to also point out that the same applies to (for example) LGBT. The media seems to have latched onto that as a lazy shorthand for either “gay” or “not cishet”, and only this morning I saw a news item that said “one half of the couple is LGBT”. I often see news items that describe a resource or charity as LGBT when it turns out to be just to do with sexual orientation (and many people are guilty of assuming trans people aren’t het) – so then you get situations like Peter Tatchell saying “…whether you’re LGBT or straight…”
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Thank you for this very helpful resource, Alex! Of course it’s absurd to euphemistically call a non-white person a “diverse person.” But I’m getting a bit stuck with the notion that a single person or thing cannot be diverse. I wouldn’t call myself a “diverse person.” But I might be inclined to say that I am one person who has a “diverse racial background” because I’m tri-racial (from three different continents). Am I missing something?
Great question, Kadota! Saying that you have a diverse racial background absolutely works, since your racial background is composed of multiple ethnicities that differ from each other. To follow the flowchart, the noun “racial background” is a singular noun, but in your case it represents a multitude or plurality of things that differ from each other, so “diverse” is correct and appropriate.
That said, someone else might use the phrase “diverse racial background” euphemistically, which would be incorrect/inappropriate. For example, a job posting might say “people with diverse racial backgrounds encouraged to apply” as a euphemism for “people who aren’t white.” In that case, the author isn’t referring to multiracial people, they’re referring to people with non-normative ethnicities—which is an incorrect/inappropriate use of “diverse.”
Thank you so much for taking the time to reply! That makes sense. I wasn’t sure whether to make an absolute distinction between singular versus plural or collective nouns.
But I guess it might be better to rephrase to avoid using “diverse” in the first place if, as in my example, the meaning would be ambiguous without added qualifiers to indicate that “diverse” is being used to actually mean diverse! The word seems quite prone to misinterpretation these days. “Diversity initiatives” to increase the number of “women and minorities” in companies are so widespread that I wonder whether most people now assume that “diverse” is intended to mean white women plus people of color (ignoring other intersectional categories).
Good point. It’s so frustrating that people who are using the word correctly are prone to misinterpretation because of this trend.
This is a great post and I really enjoyed reading it. The misuse of the word “diverse” as shorthand for “not mainstream” has been a pet peeve of mine for years. I found your post today because I just received an email from Barnes & Noble titled, “Celebrating Black & Diverse Voices” and something about that irked me… although, technically, “Diverse Voices” makes sense on its, because diverse modifies the plural noun voices. But something about the phrasing seems off to me. If we are “celebrating” this group of voices, I think the implication is that we are celebrating each voice – which converts the noun back to singular. And of course, there’s the issue of counter-posing “Black Voices” with “Diverse Voices.” What do you think?
I definitely agree, Elizabeth—your gut check feels very right to me. It’s conceivable that “Celebrating Diverse Voices” could be intended to communicate celebrating diversity in general, by lifting up voices that represent all sorts of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, religion, and more. But “Celebrating Black & Diverse Voices” definitely sounds like the intention is to celebrate non-normative voices, likely specifically voices representing marginalized races/ethnicities.
In this case, it’s less about singular vs. plural nouns and more about what the intended meaning is: “varied” or “marginalized”? “Diverse” should not be used as a euphemism to mean marginalized, and that’s what your example from Barnes & Noble sounds like, for sure. Good eye!
Hello! This is very well done. I’d love to share with my Dutch speaking and writing network. Would you be up for making a Dutch language version? I’d be happy to help you with the translations.
I’m so glad you find it helpful, Marina! And I’m always delighted when folks want to translate my posts into non-English languages. You are welcome to do so as long as you provide a credit and a link to the original. If you’d like me to make a Dutch version of the flowchart I’d be happy to if you send me the translated text for each element. Feel free to email me via my contact page and we can chat further!