Hell and Diversity Advocacy Are Paved With Good Intentions

March 16th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

The problem with intention is that what one intends can be vastly different than what one accomplishes.

“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” Albert Camus

“What one does is what counts. Not what one had the intention of doing.” Pablo Picasso

“Hell is paved with good intention, not with bad ones. All men mean well.” George Bernard Shaw

Many people intend to advocate for a noble cause. One such cause in the ‘melting pot’ that is the United States is diversity.

There is no shortage of organizations that advocate for diversity such as the National Diversity Council and Diversity, Inc.I remember doing this as a member of the yearbook staff at Hunter College, as an undergraduate resident assistant (RA) at Stony Brook University, as a teacher at Marymount Manhattan College, and as editor of an inter/cultural communication text published with SAGE. I regularly do this on this blog as well.

The problem with intention is that although you may intend to do something noble, the outcome could be less so.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who was lamenting that the diversity group she was a part of was heavily focused on race. The conversation reminded me that a couple of weeks ago I attended a half day symposium that was dedicated to gender, but at times narrowly defined gender as compliant with stereotypical personality traits.

The problem with intending to support diversity is that it can go wrong when people view diversity and diversity related issues in a narrowly defined way. Even dictionaries, if you were to look it up, define diversity in inherently broad ways. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.” Although they suggest race as an example, they do not limit the definition to this. Cultural groups include those people are born into as well as groups people voluntarily or involuntarily become a part of such as those based on religion, phases of life (e.g., college), geographic location, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic class, and generational identity such as baby boomers or generation X’ers. Even this list of cultural groups only begins to expose the variety of cultures in the world. Edward Sapir (1932/1985), a celebrated scholar and early founder of intercultural communication, noted that there exists “infinitely variable groupings of human beings” (p. 519). Viewing culture broadly is important because it allows you to identify cultures that you might otherwise overlook or offend.

When diversity is promoted in a way that, intentionally or not, limits what diversity means then people, like my new found friend, should be concerned. Promoting one group under the guise of diversity reinforces differences between groups, polarizes people’s viewpoints, and alienates people essentially accomplishing what diversity initiatives do not intend.

The conversation reminded me of one other experience. As an RA at Stony Brook University I worked with a bunch of great colleagues to plan events. To promote diversity during Black history month, we worked together to organize and execute an event intended to inform and enlighten people about black culture including poetry, food, music, dance, and so forth. At the time, the name of the event didn’t sit well with me. I was still in my ‘teen’ years technically and a minority in an otherwise heavily black dominated group of RA’s. I raised one objection which was immediately shot down. I don’t blame them. I couldn’t explain exactly why the name of the event bothered me. So it eventually appeared emblazoned in a banner across the entryway of the poorly attended event.


The intention to promote diversity was noble. Unfortunately, exclusion rather than diversity was accomplished. I’m glad that I have finally come to understand and be able to explain why the title of the event didn’t sit well with me.

Sapir, E. (1932/1985). Culture, language and personality (Ed. D. G. Mandelbaum). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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