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Let’s Break It Down | The ‘Diversity’ Primer Justice Clarence Thomas Desperately Needs

Evelyn Carter, PhD
| President
Evelyn is a social psychologist and DEI expert focused on evolving and advancing the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case against the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions process. As arguments proceeded, Justice Clarence Thomas pressed multiple times for a definition of diversity: “I’ve heard the word diversity quite a few times and I don’t have a clue what it means. It seems to mean everything for everyone.”

Many rolled their eyes at this comment, incredulous that a Black man would say he doesn’t “have a clue” what diversity means. However, his comments represent a theme in our work: the difficulty to pin down just what people mean when they say “diversity.”

When working with executive teams on their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals, one of our first questions is whether their company has set definitions for those terms. The answer is often no. Building out DEI programs without a foundational definition becomes challenging quite quickly. Employees can become confused and frustrated, unclear about the intended goal; in lieu of that clarity, people begin drawing their own conclusions about the goal, leading to counterproductive behaviors and backlash.

It’s clear that Justice Thomas, and likely many others, need a comprehensive understanding of diversity. How do we define diversity, and what does this definition look like in practice?

What is Diversity?

At Paradigm, we define diversity as, “the variety of visible, invisible, inherited, attained, or chosen characteristics within a group.” This means that diversity describes how much difference exists in a collection of people.

People violate this basic concept quite often by referring to a single individual as “diverse.” However, if diversity is a group characteristic, a single individual cannot be diverse. Moreover, “diverse” should not be a placeholder for a more specific identity. For example, I am not a “diverse” person, I am a Black person.

Another common mistake is describing a group of people who are all from the same underrepresented group as diverse, like calling them “the diverse employees” (or, as is common in the legal field, referring to “the diverse attorneys”). A group of Black people may be diverse in many ways — perhaps there’s a variety of gender identities, countries of origin, or spoken languages represented — but it is not racially diverse just because all the folks are “not White.”

The Impact of Diversity in Company Culture

Research is clear that visible representation in group provides a critical safety cue for folks from underrepresented identities. But in homogeneous organizations, there are often attempts to get around a lack of visible diversity. Organizations may excuse the fact that their company “About Us” page looks like someone copy/pasted the same White male face over and over again by instead emphasizing their “diversity of thought.” Or global organizations will tout how ethnically diverse they are, without acknowledging that nearly all of their U.S. employees are White, and their diversity numbers only improved after they acquired a company based in India. These excuses ring hollow for those looking for signs that an organization is committed to diverse representation.

People’s judgments about how diverse a group is can vary quite a bit, so there’s no consistent threshold for whether a group is diverse or not. This can be frustrating for people seeking a clear decision point. Instead of searching for that, focus on having a good mix of people from a variety of identities and backgrounds in the spaces you inhabit.

The way we Talk About Diversity has the Power to Include or Alienate People

One reason it’s important to underscore the group dynamic of diversity is that when we are imprecise about who contributes to diversity, we run the risk of alienating people. For example, consider an organization that is trying to get majority group members to champion a new diversity initiative. This organization uses language like “the diverse employees” and talks about diversity as something that non-White people “bring” to the organization (a direct contrast to the idea that diversity is a group characteristic to which we all contribute).

Research finds that language like this can cause majority group members to feel excluded and/or reject diversity efforts. It’s no wonder that the organization is struggling to get majority group members involved in these initiatives and fielding complaints of exclusion from White employees. This is yet another reason why we must be clear about what we mean when we talk about diversity.

We Still Have a Lot to Learn About the Benefits of Diversity

In response to a point about the educational benefits of diversity, Thomas said, “I didn’t go to racially diverse schools, but there were educational benefits.” Research indicates that diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups: they are more creative, better at problem-solving, and make more accurate decisions. These statements are all true and well-documented. However, as a Black man, it might be that Justice Thomas didn’t benefit from racial diversity at school.

Legal scholars Kyneshawau Hurd and Dr. Victoria Plaut suggest that the “benefits of diversity” we often discuss are not enjoyed by all: “[t]he literature on diversity benefits highlights the myriad benefits of interracial contact … a portrayal of contact that is psychologically one-sided and primarily focused on Whites … it assumes that historically oppressed groups experience contact in the same way as their counterparts” (p. 1622). Indeed, some of our own research on the complicated impact of intergroup friendship on racial attitudes echoes this call for more investigation. We must ensure that diversity actually does benefit everyone, instead of creating a lopsided experience where dominant groups benefit while underrepresented groups pay the steep price for integrating spaces where they are not truly included.

The discourse prompted by Justice Thomas teaches us that we desperately need a consistent definition of diversity. It also teaches us that having diversity in our workplaces, schools, and world is not enough. We need to think about how we’re championing those differences. We need to create inclusive spaces for people to thrive while celebrating, not hiding, their identities and backgrounds. And lastly, we need to develop practices that will yield equitable outcomes.

Applying the Research to Your Company

There’s much work to do, but this foundational understanding of diversity is where we have to start. For more information about the complex topic of diversity and how it applies to your workplace, try Paradigm Reach, our e-learning resource for all things DEI.

November 3, 2022

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