To even begin to grasp the answer to this complicated question, we first need to understand what people actually mean when they say diversity. It’s more than just a buzzword, and like anything in life, its importance is more obvious to some folks over others. But the idea that diversity is important, in places like school and work, and in our entertainment like television and movies, is a touchy subject.
This guide will lean towards the belief that diversity is important, and that it should be both embraced and encouraged. If you’d like to understand why, or at least see one side to the argument, read on. For a more directly applicable approach to diversity in the workplace and other professional environments, here’s a course on cultural diversity training.
What is Diversity?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines diversity as “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.” and “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization.” Its full definition states: “the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.”
The United States Department of the Interior, an agency focused on managing America’s cultural and natural resources, defines diversity at length as:
The term “diversity” is used broadly to refer to many demographic variables, including, but not limited to, race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, education, geographic origin, and skill characteristics.
They also add that, “America’s diversity has given this country its unique strength, resilience and richness.” This latter part will be the major focus of our guide, but in terms of basic definition, the meaning of diversity is clear.
When we approach a group of people made up of folks from various nationalities and ethnicities, we can say that this group is diverse. When we approach a group of people made up of all white European-Americans, can we say the same of them? Well, we can conclude that they are not culturally diverse, but what if half of the group are men, the other half are women, half of them are heterosexual, and the other half are homosexual? Despite not being racially diverse, we can say that this group is diverse in terms of gender presentation and sexual orientation. If you’re confused about what we mean when we say culture, check out this guide on the importance of culture in the 21st century.
Perhaps it’s Merriam-Webster’s simple definition that says it best when it emphasizes the “inclusion of different types of people.” It is precisely this inclusion that defines the term diversity and begins to explain why diversity is important. Learn more examples of diversity in this guide.
Why is Diversity Important?
Diversity is important in different ways, for different people, and in different contexts. We’ll go over some of the most basic and fundamental examples of why diversity is important below. For an extremely broad overview of how our world’s vast and diverse cultures overlap and affect each other worldwide, check out this course on the geography of globalization. You can supplement it with this guide on global awareness.
1. More Opinions = More Ideas
One reason diversity is important is because it merges people from all kinds of backgrounds. When you get a bunch of people in a room together who all have different sets of experiences, world views, cultural heritages, traditions, and opinions, you might think this would cause a clash. But if a group of diverse people are working together for a common goal – assuming all discrimination is completely out of the question – the result can be pretty amazing. This is because each and every person can feel enriched by the varying outlooks and experiences that their peers can bring to the table.
Take for instance an educational board meeting trying to organize upcoming events for the school district. If the members of the board are all white men in their mid to late 40s, do you think there is going to be a broad range of events proposed? What if the members of the board are all white women, or all Christian, or all just one homogeneous group of like-minded people with the same general cultural backgrounds?
If the school district’s children are more diverse than the people in charge of running their school-wide events, it is unlikely the school board will have the sensitivity, the cultural knowledge, or even the judgment to propose events that will encompass all kinds of people, and not just themselves. This is, of course, assuming that the school board is not aware of the importance of diversity. The point here is that with a diverse board of educators – or at least a culturally aware one – in charge of proposing school events, there is more likely to be a broader range of topics, more diverse opinions, presented. The greater the abundance of different kinds of opinions, the more variance in ideas a group can produce. This can be achieved, in part, by greater diversity.
2. Self-Esteem Booster
In the world of social awareness, there is a term called “privilege” that gets thrown around. White privilege, straight privilege, male privilege, and so on. Privilege is a word used to describe the kind of invisible advantages that certain groups in a given society wield. For example, in the United States, a straight person might have privileges that a gay person does not, especially if they both live in a city where gay marriage is not legal.
In this scenario, the straight person is free to marry the person they want, and show affection to their partner in public, while the gay person is legally not allowed to marry the person they want, and to show affection for their partner in public could potentially be seen as taboo or morally wrong. The dangers of being publicly gay is not something a straight person would ever have to worry about, and this is their privilege. If you want to learn more about privilege and how these social dynamics work, try an introductory course to sociology.
There is a privilege that is much more minor than the example given above, but still super important to understand, and that is the privilege of seeing yourself as the hero in mainstream entertainment. Think about who most of the protagonists are in American television shows, movies, books, video games, and even the people targeted in commercials. Most of the time, these are white people. In certain cases, white men, or at least just men, have more roles than women (unless we’re talking the specific niche of “chick flick” or “chick lit” or anything else sectioned off into the “girl” aisle), and in almost all cases, these heroes are straight.
If you’re a straight white boy, there will be no shortage of heroes who resemble you saving the day in your favorite cartoon every Saturday morning. But if you’re a black girl, or an Asian girl, or a gay girl or boy, where is the hero that looks like you? It is terrible for a child’s self-esteem to not see themselves reflected in mainstream culture. Pop culture suffers from an extreme lack of diversity, and while there are certain exceptions to this rule, that is all they usually are – exceptions.
Creating a diverse media that acknowledges all groups effectively reaffirms that those groups are just as important as any other, and helps boost the self-esteem of marginalized groups who might not have the privilege of seeing themselves in prominent roles in the mainstream. Diversity is important in this case because it can help all children grow up with the same sense of equality and potential, rather than having some types of children feel dominate over others. When we teach our children about equality and diversity early, they’ll grow up to be more culturally sensitive and socially aware adults.
Low self-esteem is created from a variety of factors, and may not necessarily be linked to this. If you need help fostering some good old self-confidence, check out this course on practical self-esteem boosters, and this course on how to reclaim your positivity.
3. Diversity Creates Empathy
Another thing that diversity in pop culture and at work and school can do is normalize the presence and legitimacy of groups who might feel marginalized (or who are marginalized). There has been a recent increase, for instance, in gay characters on television; ones who hold primary roles in their show and are not just played for laughs. Do you think that the simultaneous increase in support for same-sex marriage among Americans is a coincidence? As the amount of gay protagonists has risen, so has the percentage of Americans in support of gay marriage, as demonstrated by this GLAAD chart.
The reason this happens is because diversity creates empathy. It is great for minorities to be able to see themselves in pop culture, as it boosts self-esteem and reassurance that the existence of their cultural differences to that of the majority are valuable and normal, but it is also vital for people to see folks who don’t resemble them in pop culture as well. If someone with a certain privilege only sees the people with their same privileges represented on TV, it does the opposite of what we’ve described before. It might make people feel like their majority rule makes them culturally superior, and that minorities do not need representation. When they begin to see more diverse people, people who are different from them, in mainstream media – and at work, and in school – they can begin to empathize and relate to these people instead.
A lack of diversity creates a disconnect, whereas an increase in diversity creates empathy. Learn a bit more about this, and related dynamics, in this course on social psychology.
Diversity is the inclusion of people from all walks of life, in groups ranging in size from a school club, an entertainment industry, and an entire society. As we’ve discussed here, the answer to why is diversity important is long and complex, but can be summed up in three points: more kinds of people can create more kinds of ideas, it creates positive self-esteem in minority groups, and generates empathy in majority groups. Learn more about the sorts of practical applications an understanding of diversity can have in the work place in this guide to careers in sociology.
You can also learn more about the overlaps of communication and culture in this course on intercultural communication.