Our superficial view of diversity will only lead to cultural assimilation

Our superficial view of diversity will only lead to cultural assimilation


This column is an opinion from Narjis Karani, a designated CPA and board member of the Canadian-Muslim Vote, a national charity. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Our current view of diversity relies on and is mainly measured through external character traits, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. These traits are visible and merely create a visual diversity. 

This superficial, flawed view of diversity (or pseudo-diversity) inevitably leads to and encourages tokenism while also prescribing a narrative for the ideal or model minority. 

In order to remain within the boundaries of such a narrative, minorities inadvertently feel obliged to signal acceptable beliefs, behaviours and practices. Eventually, this leads to assimilation through loss of language, cultural traditions and religious practices, resulting in the elimination of true diversity.  

It’s not surprising that public demands for representation within our workplaces, our government and the media have pressured organizations to bring diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategies to the forefront of their mandate. 

But these strategies are not based on a holistic understanding of diversity. They are implemented and measured through inappropriate and incomplete metrics. 

For instance, organizations often use an identity declaration form, which simply asks about an individual’s physical character traits, such as gender, race, and ethnicity. This practice of utilizing only superficial metrics to measure diversity within an organization has become our entire view of diversity. 

As you can imagine, the acceptance of pseudo-diversity as a norm within public discourse has significant  implications on minorities. 

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Acceptable vs. unacceptable differences

It ingrains within minorities a deep understanding regarding the acceptable level of diversity and the permitted type of differences. It imposes the idea that superficial differences like race, gender or ethnicity are indeed acceptable, while differences in their practices, beliefs or values are intolerable. 

This undoubtedly prompts minorities to change their behaviours, thoughts, practices, traditions and speech in order to (virtue) signal compliance. 

Minorities are also often asked questions that assess their level of religious and cultural differences: “I know you’re practicing, but you’re not, like, that religious, right?” Or minorities are complimented, with comments such as, “She’s faithful but doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.” These questions and comments enforce the boundary that defines an acceptable versus an unacceptable difference within the mainstream view of diversity. 

This further separates minorities from their real identity, leaving only visual differences and superficial diversity. Over time, compliance with pseudo-diversity will result in cultural assimilation, rather than the preservation of true diversity. 

It’s crucial to recognize that the system of pseudo-diversity not only encourages tokenism and creates a path to assimilation, it also rewards those that follow this path. 

The assimilated minority is the model minority. The celebration of the assimilated model minority continues the cycle of virtue signalling. It creates an environment that leads minorities to believe that their cultural background and historical struggles are irrelevant, or simply another hurdle to overcome. 

Pseudo-diversity separates minorities from their real identity, leaving only visual differences and superficial diversity, writes Narjis Karani. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

It dictates that success, prosperity and the shattering of the glass ceiling is attainable, conditional upon your ability to assimilate with the majority and signal it. I refuse to believe that acceptance of minorities within society based upon their similarities can ever be true diversity.  

What is true diversity then? 

True diversity is accepting and embracing individuals who are nothing like you. It encompasses the differences in one’s physical characteristics as well as the differences in values, upbringings, cultural practices, traditions and religious beliefs. 

Keeping this in mind, it’s essential that we shift the mainstream view of diversity. Acknowledging the idea that we as individuals may have material differences is the first step in accepting true diversity and embracing minorities. 

In addition, we must ensure that organizations develop adequate metrics to measure true diversity and create environments that allow minorities to exist as their holistic and authentic selves. For instance, workplace accommodations that support members of the Jewish community to leave early on Fridays for Shabbat or provide appropriate prayer spaces for Muslims.  

Minorities must play a role in addressing pseudo-diversity. We should not allow ourselves to become a hollow representative token. Take the example of the former member of parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who resigned when she recognized that her position within cabinet was merely to act as a token of representation for her party. 

‘So what if we’re different?’

In addition, minorities must stop using signalling language such as “We’re just like you, except for the colour of our skin” or “We’re just like you, except for the curls of our hair…” Instead think, “So what if we’re different?” 

It’s imperative for minorities to realize that if they continue this assimilation exercise, over time it will strip them of their true diverse identity. 

Minorities will avoid practicing or passing down cultural traditions or religious practices because those practices and traditions might require accommodation; they might make others feel uncomfortable. 

The American actress Gina Rodriguez once stated in an interview that her parents never taught her Spanish because they were afraid that their children would be made fun of for their Latino accents and it would prevent them from fitting in. 

Minorities will lose the unique diversity that they once strived for simply because they unknowingly advocated for pseudo-diversity. 

In the end, statements like “diversity is our strength” will become meaningless because minorities will have lost their diverse identity. There will be no diversity or strength to bring to the table.

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