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The Difference With 'Difference': Professor Ralina Joseph Unpacks The Importance Of Terminology In Race And Equity

If you don't know the difference with difference, you're missing out.

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Associate professor of Communication and Co-founder/Director of the Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity (CCDE), Ralina Joseph, hosted a lecture Thursday, Jan. 15, in Kane 120 in front of an attentive audience of approximately 550-600 people. During the next hour, Joseph shared her experience, research, and understanding of tolerance, multiculturalism, diversity, and difference. This was followed by a 35 minute reception during which audience members asked questions and made comments reflecting on the lecture.

Joseph began her talk by using an analogy of a choir, explaining how each individual can contribute to justice by acting as an activist, ally, or a student – soloist, background singer, or attentive member of the audience. Often, people who want to be allies and move toward a more just system but don’t know how to be supportive in a helpful way. Joseph gave the audience members a better understanding of how they can contribute positively; by engaging in thoughtful conversation and allowing yourself to step back and listen, you develop stronger skills (think of it as training your vocal chords) when it comes to discussing topics such as difference and diversity, topics that have become uncomfortable and taboo in day-to-day interactions.

Joseph emphasized the importance of language and the impact of using specific terminology. By defining tolerance, multiculturalism, diversity, and difference, she shows how they have different implications when addressing inequities. Additionally, she made an important distinction of language by replacing the terms “minority” with “minoritized” and “slave” with “enslaved.” She explains that the former is a noun that focuses on the subject, limiting them to that one trait without accounting for the history that has put them in that position. By using a verb, speakers must understand all that the term encompasses.

Joseph also addressed #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, explaining that #BlackLivesMatter is a movement, whereas #AllLivesMatter is simply a retort. #BlackLivesMatter demands justice, while #AllLivesMatter fosters apathy. #BlackLivesMatter asks for equity, #AllLivesMatter suggests equality. Though equality may seem an honorable goal, Joseph explains that equality only leads to sameness, while equity leads to fairness: when everyone is trying to see over a fence, equality gives each person the same size stool, but equity allows each individual a different size stool that allows everyone to successfully see over the fence. For individuals and communities that have been continually oppressed, it is not enough to simply have sameness – distributive justice is required to raise others up, to give everyone a larger stool to see over the metaphorical fence. Using the example Joseph quoted, by dismissing a broken bone with the retort “all bones matter”, one overlooks the dire need and critical condition of a specific area in the desire to treat all areas equally. In this case, the proper response is to treat the area, giving it special attention and more resources to allow it to heal before the body as a whole can be considered healthy.

Joseph covered many important topics that need to be discussed and addressed by society. As UW President Ana Mari Cauce said during her introduction of Joseph, the University of Washington is diverse, but it can do much better. As an institution/community, it is our responsibility to demand equity and prioritization of these issues. Every single person can help contribute to a more accountable and equitable society. You can start becoming part of the conversation by attending an event at the CCDE (, learning about the UW’s Race and Equity Initiative, and/or learning to listen to those who have more practice and experience.

If you have any other suggestions of how to be an ally, feel free to share and/or comment below!

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