Sunday, March 16, 2008

The 'Grammar' of Diversity

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A few years ago (in 2004) you may recall how an experienced and much-admired chair of one of Britain’s major nursing institutions found herself obliged to resign after using the expression “Ten Little Niggers” in a light-hearted way to summon her committee members back to the table after a coffee break. Two of them were black.

Pat Bottrill resigned shortly afterwards from the Royal College of Nursing in a hastily convened emergency meeting. Her acknowledgment that the reference to the title of a well-known Agatha Christie novel was “inappropriate and offensive” reminds everyone afresh of the link between language and manners in a diverse society.

Doubtless, many will have felt at least a twinge of sympathy for the lady concerned in these particular circumstances, and will have gone on to reassure themselves that they would never make an error of that kind.

After all, if the protocols for what’s acceptable and what’s not weren’t so universally acknowledged these days, the outcome in this case would not have been so swift and unequivocal.

Choice of “label” language is an important display of respect. And if in doubt, the accepted wisdom is to ask the person affected by your choice of vocabulary what they would prefer.

As in matters of harassment, the arbiter of whether your behaviour is acceptable or not is the person on the receiving end. What you meant is not what counts, it’s what the recipient felt.

But do people know how to get it right when confronted with a situation where they’ve not already acquired the language? And is there a formula to help ensure you’re not caught out in such circumstances?

We all talk about “disabled people”, “black people”, “people with learning difficulties”, “gay and lesbian people”, and so forth; most people wouldn’t dream of calling someone “a black” or referring to a community of people as “the disabled”.

But is that the best way to learn Diversity awareness? By rote? Like multiplication tables or lines from a foreign language phrasebook? Would it not be better to have a set of principles?

Understanding the grammar of any language is very different to merely learning a few phrases. If you understand the grammar then all you need in order to cope with a new situation is the vocabulary. In contrast, merely understanding the phrases to use in common situations tells you nothing about how to deal with the unfamiliar when it comes along.

One example of what I mean by the grammar of diversity is the preference which groups of people generally have to be referred to by adjectives rather than as nouns.

Turning the adjective "Black" or "Disabled" or even "Female" into a noun allows people to conveniently forget that an individual’s colour, physical limitations or sex are just some of many attributes which might qualify the more universal idea of them being a person.

Combining adjectives also allows us to recognise that there are elderly disabled black lesbian muslim women too, without any one attribute blotting out all the others.

Using adjectives for their proper purpose, and not turning them into nouns is just one example of what I call the grammar of diversity, but it’s not hard to think of other examples – not all of which need be language based. Consulting with people themselves is a grammatical principle, because it doesn’t just apply to whichever group of people makes the loudest complaints about it.

To consult about the needs of pregnant women you’d probably seek out some women who are pregnant, for instance. But who has fallen into the trap of asking an able-bodied “expert” about the needs of disabled people rather than disabled people themselves?

Issues like this are becoming more and more important these days, with an increased focus on disciplines such as carrying out Equality Impact Assessments and devising equality schemes.

These activities require effective consultation. And if you’re to consult effectively then you need to locate the right people to talk to, and then connect with them on an equal and respectful basis.
Compiling a Single Equality Scheme becomes the equivalent of taking a European tour – having dialogue in French today, German tomorrow and Italian the day after.

So start brushing up on that grammar – because sooner or later you’ll encounter circumstances you weren’t prepared for. And the phrasebook won’t be any help.

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