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Official music video of the song “Trapped in a Box” by No Doubt.

Diversity and inclusion should be about recognizing people´s individuality, seeing the person beyond the label. Though, labels are an essential tool for D&I practitioners, and I am not sure there is an easy way out this paradox. It is a daily conundrum. Labels often perpetrate those same power dynamics that diversity and inclusion practitioners should be challenging. They are intrinsically divisive; they create artificial barriers harnessing a reality that is often more fluid and complex. Yet, labels provide an important framework to analyze and validate the experiences of an heterogeneous group of people sharing common experiences or characteristics – whether those are subscribed or ascribed.

A friend and former colleague told me that her European students often believe that D&I does not exist in Europe – nor there is need for that. Somehow, they believe that inequality is specific to the United States and therefore it needs no addressing outside of this specific context. Police violence, LGBTIAQ+ shootings, limited access to education and healthcare, the KKK, are often brought as examples of realities foreign to Europe. Inequality, however, is everywhere and Europe makes no exception. Failure to recognize it signals that we might be watching from a privileged position.

Context matters and we can´t expect inequality to look the same across counties with different cultures and administrative contexts. Our past is not America´s past and social constructs that apply to the U.S. do not easily translate to Europe´s context. Further, there is a high degree of variability across Europe itself, even when our cultures are not too far apart. The D&I conversation, however, is very much dependent on U.S. specific identity labels that poorly apply to the cultural and social context of Germany. And this has been one of the main challenges that we have faced when we started developing a climate survey for Forschungszentrum Jülich. We knew what we wanted to ask, but we felt like we didn´t have an adequate vocabulary for that.

One good example for that is what Americans call “Race”. Europeans – unless they are playing at Dungeons and Dragons – do not talk about race and there are very good reasons for that. Race is a social construct based on the false premises of white supremacy and using it to classify people means holding true this way of making sense of society. While race is a made-up concept, however, the impact of racism on people´s life is very real and should not be ignored. Data collection, therefore, should not be avoided. The question, however, remains: how can we monitor racism within our context without talking about race? From our discussions with our D&I council, it seemed clear that skin tone was only one of the many aspects to be considered. But then what about other physical traits such as hair color and texture that are still essential to the process of othering in Germany? Not only we have an awareness problem, but we also have a language one. Speechless, that is how we felt. Simply unable to adequately put into words the reality that many people are living.

Of course, a possible way of action would have been to ask people to self-define themselves. As it comes to surveys, however, this solution is not always preferable as variance in respondents ´answers might generate data that then are hard to analyze and compare. In consultation with the Sounding Group, therefore, several questions were created to capture the uniqueness of people´s experiences based on a variety of intersecting characteristics that fit the cultural and social environment within which we operate. It was honestly challenging and time consuming, but creating the survey gave us the opportunity to redefine diversity from our own perspective.