Words shape us for better or worse – by Deborah Levine

 (Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press) 

Attempts to bring our diverse society together is nothing new. Controversies and road blocks surrounding the attempts aren’t new either. It may seem that way to some folks with furious debate over “structural racism”, but it’s the terminology that’s new, not the reality.

Our language has struggled over decades to find ways to express the mission of inclusion without creating a nasty backlash. Back in the day, Multiculturalism was supposed to heal disparities. It did not. Then it was Diversity. That didn’t resolve much and Diversity & Inclusion became popular. Not a major game changer, so we went to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to address structural disparities. Has DEI had the desired results in the community, workplace, university, or any place? I’m not convinced.
Part of the challenge is that “structural” disparities are labeled fake news by many. These issues are so deeply embedded in our society that folks often don’t recognize what they’re seeing.  About fifty years ago, as an undergraduate at Harvard, I didn’t understand that I was encountering “structural” issues. Sitting with the Dean to discuss what my major would be, I was told that I’d been accepted into the university to add interest to my freshman class. But now that I was part of the system, I would major in English or economics like everyone else.

It was a clear “you will comply” directive. As the token “interesting” freshman, I took it personally and I did not comply. Instead, I studied the science and history of storytelling. It was a new honors major which meant we were placed in a tutorial. So the major’s sole Jew and African-American  ended up together, sitting with our tutor. He was a graduate student on the outs with the department as his wife had told the chair to go sh*t in the ocean. His first question to us was, “What stupid thing did you two do to get assigned to me?”

My classmate knew full well. At our next session, he wore an African dashiki shirt and sported an afro. He chose the visual. I turned to words.

After decades of writing diversity-related books, I’m fascinated to see them back in demand as corporate diversity-related efforts are restructured and new diversity projects, councils, and offices are surfacing. Trying for broad appeal and a soft sell,  “Belonging” got added to  the phrase, now DEIB. But fear are also rising and the “Diversity” in DEI is sometimes deleted to deflect the raging debate between ‘structural racism’ and Christian nationalism.

Language reflects our cultural shifts. The once popular phrase, “get used to being uncomfortable”, is no longer relevant. Loud, fast and furious is how we operate and marching into battle is the new norm. Yet rallying around our diverse humanity can win out in the end. Corporations embracing diversity and structural inequities could spotlight their growing efforts. Celebrities could back these efforts and add their own in the form of foundations and community service. Religious leaders can nurture the humane instinct of their flock and discourage knee jerk reactions.

And language can be shaped by Emotional Intelligence (EQ). I have always taught that awareness of our own, and others, emotional state is a prerequisite to successful problem solving. Ask yourself, “Is hate and rage my intended goal?” Can you step back and use EQ to speak with respect? That’s what my mother taught me years ago, and I suspect that many of your mothers did, too. Now more than ever, it’s time to listen to that advice and nurture the best of human nature.


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