Demanding Diversity: Tolerance is Not Enough

How can therapists start to navigate America's changing demographics?

Posted Dec 31, 2018

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We Are a Highly Diverse People

There are many important ways that people can be diverse. Recognition and appreciation of diverse identities has focused on several specific categories, such as race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sex, sexual orientation, social/economic status (SES), age, disability, and religion – to name just a few!  With so many dimensions to diversity, it might seem easiest to simply focus on each person’s unique humanity. But the groups people belong to give them a sense of identity, and so dimensions of diversity are important.

Stigma and Discrimination

While it is easy to simply recognize these differences, we can’t understand the experiences of others without recognizing the varying degrees of social stigma or privilege embedded in their identities. Stigmatized identities are more likely to be met with disfavor and exclusion whereas privileged identities are connected with favor and respect. As a result, discrimination on the basis of the identities mentioned above is both common and often prohibited by law.  At an individual level, people have very little control as to which of these identities they possess. Although some degree of change is possible, for the most part people are born with or socialized into their race, culture, gender, SES, and sexual identity, and as such no one should be stigmatized or privileged on the basis of these identities alone.

Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are among the most highly stigmatized identities in American culture, and determine many features of life, such as where you live, where you go to school, how much money you make, who you will marry, and if you will become incarcerated. Although our culture places a high value on being non-discriminatory, individuals do react to others based on their presumed racial and ethnic identities.  No doubt, most clinicians would consider themselves unprejudiced and even committed to the well-being of people from all ethnoracial groups. However, research shows that therapists, on average, are biased and may propagate discrimination and racism without even realizing it (Kugelmass, 2016).

Meanwhile, due to shifting fertility patterns, immigration, and globalization, our society is becoming ever more diverse. In the US today, over half of young people are children of color, and most births are ethnoracial minority babies. According to the US Census, by 2044 non-Hispanics White people will be another minority group. So diversity is coming, whether we are ready or not. How can we prepare for these seismic demographic shifts? How can match our egalitarian values to our behaviors?

Dimensions of Diversity

Diversity Awareness

Awareness is the best place to start in term of understanding diversity. In recognition of this, most workplaces and educational institutions offer diversity awareness seminars and programs. The rationale is that if we learn about diversity, we will appreciate it more and maybe even be less likely to harm or offend others. While there is noble intent, awareness is only a start and is not enough to shift our consciousness. Notably, many diversity awareness programs fall short of their stated goals.

Tolerating Diversity

Tolerance is the level of ability that someone has to recognize and respect other’s values and differences. Being tolerant means accepting diversity and not expressing negative attitudes toward individuals who are different. People may not like it but can rationalize that at the very least they aren’t harming others.  Consider that the word “tolerate” implies that something is painful and possibly harmful and it must be endured. Tolerance reinforces the idea that by putting up with all this stressful diversity, a person can build up immunity or resistance to it. This mentality does not take us in the right direction in terms of valuing others.

Celebrating Diversity

In my graduate ethnic and cultural diversity class, at the end of the every semester we have a multicultural potluck. Someone brings Irish soda bread, another brings empanadas, someone else brings sweet potato pie, and we play ethnic music from various traditions. Celebrating is far better than simply tolerating, but it oversimplifies and undervalues people’s cultures. Consider than in the name of “celebrating diversity,” fraternities have put on hurtful black-face parties and trick-or-treaters have turned whole cultures into their Halloween costumes. Simply celebrating does not move us to where we really need to be.

Leveraging Diversity

Leveraging diversity means learning what each person has to bring to the table and actively leveraging their specific skills, perspectives, and features to become more effective (Regier, 2017). When we look at it this way we can take the diversity in our environments and use it to meet important goals, such as reaching new demographics in our communities, offering multilingual services, and improving client care. Leveraging diversity recognizes that differences are a valuable asset – a resource, not a liability. We are enriched by the diversity in our work environments and networks.

Embracing Diversity

Embracing diversity means we not only recognize and truly appreciate differences, we are willing immerse ourselves in places marked by these differences to experience all it has to offer.

Embracing diversity transcends othering by meeting others in a genuine spirit of connection and caring. We are excited that that there is so much to learn, love, understand, and share with one another. We can focus on human commonalities while simultaneously embracing differences in appearance, culture, values, and experiences.

Demanding Diversity

When we demand diversity it is because we cannot imagine a world marked by sameness of culture, thought, and appearance. Those who demand diversity expect racial, ethnic, and cultural differences and rebel against homogeneity. Millennials are increasingly expecting diverse learning and working environments. When environments are overrun by dominant individuals, those who demand diversity ask “What went wrong?” It means actively seeking out those who are different because differences are considered essential.  An environment without diverse others is automatically unacceptable and demands a solution. When we start demanding diversity, the world really starts to change.


Kugelmass, H. (2016). “Sorry, I’m not accepting new patients”: An audit study of access to mental health care. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 57, 168–183. doi:10.1177/0022146516647098.

Johansson, A. (2017, November 14). Millennials Are Pushing For Diversity In These 3 Industries. Forbes.

Regier, N. (2017, September 7). Leveraging diversity: Transcending labels for breakthrough results. SmartBrief.