White people are shown to have peculiar ideas about “diversity” — study

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Fostering diversity is a vital part of reducing the sort of exclusionary practices that historically have mutated into legitimate, criminal injustices.

Anyone who’s not part of an otherwise homogenous neighborhood, or office environment, or classroom, or music scene, can tell you they’ve felt “othered” to varying degrees in their life. It happens. To an extent, it’s human nature. But what about when that “othering” happens to a vulnerable hospital patient?

While there are efforts to increase workforce diversity in these healthcare centers to better reflect the makeup of the communities they serve, there’s a greater point of friction at play here.

Who defines “diversity”? The answer is in a new experiment and comprised of more than a thousand responses. They come from people of different backgrounds, and it’s as American as it is familiar.

What’s new — The study, published this month in the journal Science Advances, reveals that different demographics can have different definitions of a diverse community. The side-effect is that people — especially those who aren’t white — might not actually view the situation as truly diverse. To put it another way, white people tended to view groups of different people as diverse more often than non-white people.

Janet Xu is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Princeton University, and one of the study authors.

Xu tells Inverse the study revealed there are two definitions of diversity:

  1. The first equates racial diversity with racial heterogeneity. This is the notion that the more racial groups of equal size in a community, the more diverse that community is.
  2. The second definition refers to the presence of non-white groups, particularly communities where the Black, Latino or Asian population is dominant. In this case, fewer white people mean a group is more diverse.

How the experiment worked — Xu and her colleagues surveyed a sample of 1,803 white, Black, Latino, and Asian American U.S. adults.

The subjects were asked to rate eight hypothetical neighborhoods on their diversity. Neighborhoods were comprised of three of four possible racial groups:

  1. Black
  2. Latino
  3. Asian American
  4. White

In each neighborhood, only three racial groups were present — a fourth was always missing.

The neighborhood varied along two dimensions:

  1. Racial heterogeneity (the number of different races represented)
  2. Racial representation (the sizes of each racial group represented)

About that first term: heterogeneity isn’t just the number of groups, but it’s also about — ideally — them being fairly equally distributed. The second thing they’re looking at is when there’s a dominant group, how people feel when the dominant group is Black (or another racial minority) vs. white.

The hypothetical neighborhoods were presented in pairs, and the subjects ranked them on a scale of one to seven. One was not diverse at all, and seven was very racially diverse.

The subjects were asked to rate eight hypothetical neighborhoods on their diversity.


The researchers explain it this way: “a participant might have been asked to compare Neighborhood A, which is 70 percent white, 28 percent Black, and 2 percent Latino, and Neighborhood B, which is 70 percent Black, 28 percent Latino, and 2 percent Asian.”

While the two neighborhoods are the same in terms of heterogeneity — the racial distribution of groups (heterogeneity) — they are different in terms of the identities of the largest group and the missing group (representation).

What they found — Overall, all of the subjects associated heterogeneity with diversity.

A neighborhood that’s 50 percent one group, 48 percent another group, and 2 percent a third group will rank higher on the diversity scale than a neighborhood that’s 90 percent white.

It seemed like heterogeneity mattered more than the race of the dominant group. But, Xu says, when you break the results down further, that’s not necessarily true.

Across the board, the non-white respondents rated predominately non-white neighborhoods as more diverse than predominately white neighborhoods. Further, if the subject rating the neighborhood the same had the same racial identity as the dominant group in the neighborhood, they gave it a higher diversity score.

“So if you had a neighborhood with a 70 percent, 28 percent, and two percent breakdown and the neighborhood is 70 percent Asian, I, an Asian respondent, am likely to say that neighborhood is more diverse than a neighborhood that’s 70 percent White,” Xu explains.

Digging into the details — However, when it came to white respondents, a unifying trend was less obvious.

“When their own racial identity was dominant, they rated the community as more diverse.”

Some white respondents saw neighborhoods that were predominately Black as less diverse than neighborhoods that were predominately white.

Other white respondents agreed with the non-white participants: neighborhoods with a predominately white population were less diverse than neighborhoods where other racial groups were dominant.

So what accounts for the peculiar split among white people when it comes to their views on diversity as compared to other groups?

“We thought that maybe white respondents’ attention to minority representation ... might be shaped by some of their attitudes towards diversity-related policy, like immigration and affirmative action,” Xu says.

Where it gets political — Further analysis revealed their hypothesis was correct. White respondents who supported liberal diversity policies like affirmative action and immigration, resembled Black, Asian, and Latino respondents in that they tended to associate diversity with non-White representation.

Meanwhile, the study team states, “white participants with conservative stances on diversity-related policy issues viewed predominantly white neighborhoods as more diverse than predominantly Black neighborhoods.”

Particularly interesting to Xu, she says, is how “conservative whites were actually similar to the subjects in other racial groups: when their own racial identity was dominant, they rated the community as more diverse.” Only the liberal white subjects rated the communities as less diverse when their own racial identity was dominant.

The big takeaway — While many institutions claim to be vocally committed to diversity and inclusion efforts, this study suggests the two following actions to ensure it:

  1. The people creating the programs need to have a clear idea of what they mean by diversity
  2. That definition also needs to be clear and acceptable to the people being affected by the program.

Xu references a January 2020 study in Personality and Psychology Bulletin that looked at the idea of “diversity dishonesty.” This study suggests organizations may say they value racial diversity, but on average the Black and Latino members of that organization don’t think that’s true.

“One of the interpretations of that study is that these organizations don’t actually care about truly being diverse, they just want to market themselves that way,” Xu says.

Xu believes her research might offer a different perspective.

“I think our findings suggest it may not be such a dramatic bad faith effort,” she explains. Diversity initiatives can be well-intentioned. But organizations may also “think they’ve achieved a level of diversity that is in disagreement with what diversity means to some members of the organization, particularly the non-White members,” Xu says.

What’s the research-backed solution? For organizations to succeed in good faith diversity efforts, they would do well to listen to the people of color in the organization about what they believe is true diversity is.

Abstract: The term “diversity,” although widely used, can mean different things. Diversity can refer to heterogeneity, i.e., the distribution of people across groups, or to the representation of specific minority groups. We use a conjoint experiment with a race-balanced, national sample to uncover which properties, heterogeneity or minority representation, Americans use to evaluate the extent of racial diversity a neighborhood and whether this assessment varies by participants’ race. We show that perceived diversity is strongly associated with heterogeneity. This association is stronger for Whites than for Blacks, Latinos, or Asians. In addition, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians view neighborhoods where their own group is largest as more diverse. Whites vary in their tendency to associate diversity with representation, and Whites who report conservative stances on diversity-related policy issues view predominately White neighborhoods as more diverse than predominately Black neighborhoods. People can agree that diversity is desirable while disagreeing on what makes a community diverse.

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