Advice & News

July 16, 2020

The What of It All: Understanding Words and Meanings in Fighting the Nation’s Pandemic of Racism

In addition to a COVID-19 global pandemic, there's another public health crisis that we are facing, the crisis of racism in the United States of America, and like COVID-19, it has its own language. As educators, we know how important definitions and understanding is to the sharing and transference of knowledge through language. We also know that if we misuse or misrepresent meaning through language, we run the risk of appearing misinformed and being misunderstood. Never has this been more true than in this era of COVID-19 when our physical health is on the line. Increasingly, we are seeing the Nation's public health and personal wellness erode through the effects of the pandemic of racism.

By way of example, COVID-19 is a name that we have all come to know, but before we knew COVID of any number, we knew "corona," the novel coronavirus. Later we came to learn the term SARS-COV-2. We've used these terms interchangeably as if they all mean the same thing, but they do not. They are in the same family, but they have two distinct meanings. This example underscores the importance of knowing the WHAT of what we are fighting. If we plan to eradicate a pandemic, we must accurately understand what we are fighting and appreciate its distinct definitions. As a chief diversity officer (CDO), I've often witnessed the interchanging of words that have different meanings. Words such as diversity, inclusion; equality; and equity. As is the case with COVID-19, it's essential to have a solid understanding of the terms used in the language of racial and social justice, especially at the most basic of levels.

The American Dictionary, Merriam Webster, recently came under fire for having too narrow of a definition for the term "racism." It did not include the word systemic as part of the description and therefore gave a less than complete definition of racism. Once altered, the expanded definition can prove beneficial in reminding us of the full WHAT, that we are fighting because words matter and accuracy about WHAT we call things, matters more. For a primer or reminder, I recommend sticking with Merriam Webster to do a quick accuracy check on our basic use of terminology.

1: the condition of having or being composed of differing elements : variety

2: an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities :

When you hear "We need to hire more people who reflect the diverse demographics of our student body," what you are really hearing is we need more employees of color who share the same race and ethnicities of our student body. Through my experiences, I have noticed that when the term "diversity" is used as a standalone, the context is often related to race and ethnicity. However, when referencing other types of diversity, I've experienced individuals saying, "we need more (fill in the blank) diversity." Blanks have been gender, religious, GLBT, and a list of other diversity categories.

1: the act of including: the state of being included

2: the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded

When we say that this campus should be more inclusive, what we are saying is that we should do a better job of integrating diverse individuals within our community. It is possible to have a diverse campus and not have an inclusive one. There's a commonly used phrase that I have heard often, "Diversity is inviting me to the party; Inclusion is asking me to dance." It's simple, yet it paints a vivid word picture to help differentiate the terms.

1: the quality or state of being equal

On our campuses, when we deliver the curriculum and then test students on content, unless a student is given an ability-related accommodation, students are given an equal amount of time to complete an exam. Equality is not the term that we use when we are advancing principles of fairness. Equal is not always fair, equal is equal.

1: justice according to natural law or right

2: a body of legal doctrines and rules developed to enlarge, supplement, or override a narrow, rigid system of law

Equity shows up when we are willing to amend our equal standard measures in light of circumstances that might place others at an unfair advantage or disadvantage. Where equality denotes the same, equity allows for different or disparate treatment to achieve fairness and advance the premise that each individual deserves an equal opportunity to succeed. You may have seen this play out in your courses during the COVID-19 transition when you came upon the realization that there existed a technology gap for some students. An example of an equitable approach would be an instructor allowing students with limited or no technology to turn in assignments later than others in the course. This extension is an acknowledgment that circumstances beyond the student's control placed them at an unfair advantage, and thus an equitable solution was devised.

To all of the chief diversity officers and scholars in the social sciences reading this article, thanks for hanging in there with me through the primer. One thing that is an essential reminder for those of us who do this work for a living, or as a passion, is that what may be common knowledge to us is not common knowledge to those who don't spend a majority of their day engaging in conversations around diversity. I love my work and the field of higher education, but we can sometimes be a little hesitant to acknowledge that we are not individual experts in everything. I am certainly guilty of that and proved it to myself the first time that I tried to pick up an international medical journal to read about what global health experts were saying about COVID-19. Now mind you, my doctorate is in law and policy, so what would possibly make me think that I could read a medical journal and that I should know what was meant by the wording "Cardiac troponins by high-sensitivity assays (hs-cTn) should be considered an ally and a crucial diagnostic and prognostic aid during the COVID-19 pandemic." Other than recognizing the term "ally," I had to Google every other word to find the meaning of the sentence. That showed initiative.

I could have also been brave and willing to find a medical expert who would show great patience as she recognized my desire to learn more about a topic of significant importance. Similarly, when we come across non-diversity and inclusion experts, trying to understand the meaning and the differences in the language of racial and social justice, we can also choose to show great patience to individuals who have taken the initiative to do their research even as they may realize that they have some gaps to be filled. To those individuals trying to learn, if you have never engaged in these dialogues before, you might not want to jump into the diversity equivalent of my international journal of medicine. Instead, get familiar with the basics, know that learning is cumulative and will be built. The more that we engage with one another and close the knowledge gaps, we can also work together to close the trust gaps, taking one step closer to getting to the what of it all.