Academic Opinion: Diversity and Language

Prejudices found in the community are often acted out in the workplace. In George Henderson’s book, Cultural Diversity in the Workplace, prejudice is defined as “a conclusion drawn without adequate knowledge or evidence”.[1] While there are laws to prevent discrimination in the workplace, as pointed out in the text, there are no laws against having a prejudicial attitude. This raises the question: is anyone without prejudice?

I have heard the statement that we should “embrace diversity” rather than merely practice tolerance. I consider myself an open minded individual, but I am neither sure I agree with embracing diversity, nor am I sure that to truly do so is possible. Certainly I respect diversity. If diversity can be loosely defined as “differences”, then isn’t the acknowledgment of said differences without judgment an acceptable goal?

Take religious views for example. A Christian’s view of Jesus as the son of God is the foundation of their faith – their religious truth. A Buddhist person, however, does not hold the same view. Can the two be expected to “embrace” the other’s view? WordNet, an online dictionary defines to embrace as to “take up the cause, ideology, practice, method, of someone and use it as one's own” and offers "She embraced Catholicism"; "They adopted the Jewish faith" as examples.[2] Isn’t it more realistic to expect the two to accept that they differ in these beliefs and proceed from there without bias?

Perhaps it is an argument of semantics. When someone uses the phrase “embrace diversity” perhaps what they really mean is to accept diversity and to include diverse views and opinions. It is certainly noble to raise one’s children to respect the differences of others, but to raise children to embrace these differences; to take up the cause or ideology; undermines the whole idea of raising a child with a specific set of values. Strong moral, philosophical and religious or spiritual beliefs are the very core of our identities. A person secure in these beliefs is a person secure with themselves. One should hold the conviction that their views are the right ones for his/herself. The problem is that many people refuse to accept that what might be correct for them is not correct for everyone else, thus making them (at best) narrow minded and at worst self righteous and often discriminatory.

Semantics, the meaning of the words within a language, is often the root of misunderstanding. Henderson says that all people utter sounds in hope that the person who receives them will be in common agreement about their meaning. Then he goes on to point out that “words are full of human relationship traps” and can be distorted.[3] The language of culture, or lexicon, can often lead to misunderstanding. Take for example the recent highly publicized incident concerning Don Imus’s racist and misogynist remarks directed at the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team. This incident, for which Imus was fired, created media frenzy and resulted in a much needed dialogue about the lexicon of popular culture. Was Imus, indeed being both racist and sexist, or was he merely using the (seemingly acceptable) terms heard in popular culture – specifically rap music. If he was not guilty of being racist/sexist, then was he simply guilty of being a white man who tried to use terms acceptable only to those of a specific ethnic group? Unfortunately, the dialogue was short lived and no consensus was reached.

Recently a popular syndicated morning radio show, whose cast is comprised of a white male, a white woman, an Hispanic male and a black male, asked the question: When singing along with a rap song, should a white guy not sing the word niggah.[4] Certainly there are many current popular songs which include that very word. Again, no consensus was reached, but it is worth noting that the sole black man in the group adamantly stated that he, even though black, would never use the word and wished the artists would cease to also.

Another example of misuse of contemporary lexicon is that of MSNBC commentator, David Shuster. Shuster was suspended from his job because while discussing Chelsea Clinton’s role in her mother’s presidential campaign he asked, "Doesn't it seem as if Chelsea is sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?" Clinton’s campaign officials immediately responded calling the remark "disgusting," "beneath contempt" and "the kind of thing that should never be said on a national news network." MSNBC officials called the remark “irresponsible.” Shuster, himself, offered an on air apology stating that his remark was “inappropriate” and that it “diminished the regard and respect” for Chelsea Clinton. [5]

Shuster’s remarks did not generate the media frenzy that Imus’s did, but the two do share similarities. In a society where contemporary lexicon accepts that a popular television show on MTV is called Pimp my Ride; where MySpace users are urged to “Pimp my Page”; and where even the Racine, Wisconsin library offered a summer program for teens called “Pimp My Cart”[6], is it really that surprising that Shuster used a term which has been generally accepted to mean “to decorate” or “to help look better”. Clinton herself stated that Shuster’s’ remarks were said to illustrate a pattern of behavior that “that seems to repeatedly lead to this sort of degrading language”.[7] I think this comment, posted anonymously in response to the article, sums up the situation nicely: “Just because you are not in touch with the vernacular in modern language does not change the meaning of what he was saying. It only demonstrates your lack of understanding young people. You are in fact trying to "pimp" this situation for political gain.”

None of these examples should be interpreted as a call to excuse truly derogatory or discriminatory language. They are cited only to point out that context – both societal and situational – should be considered when making a determination of discrimination. As stated in our text: The links between language and discourse on one hand and discrimination and racism or sexism on the other hand are complex and varied. While the business sector of employment is certainly not a pop culture arena, cultural imperatives do dictate our sense of appropriateness within our culture. These cultural imperatives do play a role within the business community in that DELs[8] inappropriate to the office are considered acceptable in our entertainment, and therein lays the problem.

End notes:

[1] Henderson, George. Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: Issues and Strategies. Praeger Publishers. Connecticut: 1994
[2] Princeton University. (2006). WordNet: a Lexical Database for the English Language.
[3] See note 1
[4] Kidd Kraddick in the Morning. (2008). Can White People Say That?
[5] Kurtz, Howard. (2008). “Chelsea Remark Earns MSNBC Correspondent A Suspension”. [Electronic Version]. The Washington Post. February 9, 2008, P. C01.
[6] Anderson, Janine. (2007). What's in a name? Racine Public Library invites teens to 'Pimp My Cart'.
[7] Vogle, Kenneth P. and Calderone, Michael. (2008). Hillary rips MSNBC's Shuster. Retrieved April 10, 2008 from
[8] Derogatory Ethnic Labels