A recent essay, “The Antiracist College,” offers a nuanced critique of how academic institutions such as Amherst College and Duke University have developed and implemented antiracist policies since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. It also contains one refreshing omission: nowhere does it mention the acronyms BIPOC or DEI.
Over the past year, the BIPOC and DEI acronyms have become ubiquitous signals of antiracism initiatives, particularly on college campuses. But amidst the many critiques of inadequate performative statements put out by university administrators last summer, these acronyms themselves are an excellent example of inadequate performative correctness. Acronyms are not the path to a more just and inclusive university. By diminishing words, we lessen both their significance and their transformative power. By conflating groups of words to a single set of initials, we ignore important distinctions and forestall constructive debates.
BIPOC is an acronym referring to Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Or, in some places, it is spelled out as Black and Indigenous people of color. Elsewhere, it is defined as Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Thus the meaning fluctuates with the choice of capitalization, and the alternative placement or omission of that seemingly inconsequential word “and.” In short, the acronym is mercurial, and, as Vox writer Constance Grady explains, potentially misleading. Its first recorded use was on Twitter in 2013, a perhaps useful shorthand for a medium that at the time restricted tweets to 140 characters.
The DEI acronym, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion, conveniently summarizes three policy areas now at the top of administrative agendas on campuses throughout North America. But who decided that fostering greater equity and inclusion within university culture should be convenient? And might the convenience of these terms actually help undercut their effectiveness in bringing about what they stand for? By being yoked together and reduced to first letters, the meanings of all three words are diluted. Task forces proliferate, and metrics are put in place, but the acronym hides layers of complexity embedded in each of these words and renders them shallow.
The history of acronyms — from their origins in military contexts to their vast takeover as the corporate vernacular of late-stage capitalism — should trouble any university administrator who relies on them to drive social justice efforts forward. Though acronyms date back to early Latin, the years of World War II saw their widespread adoption, both in civilian life and in the theaters of combat. Shortening a phrase to the first letter of each word was a popular element in love letters between soldiers and their girlfriends back home, with clever intimate messages disguised as familiar place names. This was partly the pleasure of writing in code, and partly a space-saving device, as soldiers were encouraged to use only a single page for their letters home as part of the wartime effort to save transport space.
Military acronyms also proliferated during the war, partly for convenience, and partly for reasons of security. Some of them have been adopted into civilian language, but with altered meanings. For example, the common slang word “snafu” now refers to an unanticipated bit of tricky trouble, but it originated around 1942 in the U.S. Marine Corps to mean “Status Normal, All Fouled Up.” That is to say, the meaning has evolved from a sarcastic remark about the normal state of affairs, to almost the complete opposite.
Acronyms invented in military contexts support cultures of secrecy, irreverence and tribalism. All of these are understandable survival mechanisms within groups under extreme stress and needing solidarity. The acronyms invented in government and corporate contexts, as shortened names for agencies and companies, save the “valuable” time and space that would be required to say the words and spell them out. In each case — a need to solidify the culture of a group under stress through coded language, and the desire for greater convenience in day-to-day operations of business and government — are the antithesis of what is needed in promoting social justice within academe. A university is not a branch of the military with a mandate to promote national security; nor is it a corporation driven by the obligation to create profit for its shareholders. At its best, it is an idealized microcosm within which the most wicked problems are subject to disciplined scholarship and debate.
George Orwell teaches us two profound truths about language, which in the context of contracting language may seem to offer contradictory messages. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he sincerely advocates for cutting the excess from prose writing, advising to “never use a longer word if a shorter word will do.” In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, published three years later, the contraction and elimination of words is a key authoritarian mechanism intended to make individual thought impossible. But Politics also contains this revealing sentence: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract, and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen house.”
What is the acronym DEI, if not a hackneyed phrase shortened to three letters? It assumes that any one of the three goals automatically pulls the other two along, that policies for greater diversity will also provide more equity. Inclusion, the most elusive and immeasurable of the three goals, is thus handily reduced to “I”. It is the least spoken about in institutional discourse and also potentially the most transformative. As diversity expert Verna Myers has said: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
To be sure, BIPOC and DEI are not insidious attempts to hinder the forward arc toward justice. Each stems from generally good intentions and commitment to an increasingly diverse and equitable culture. Nevertheless, these acronyms conflate histories, peoples and issues that demand more nuanced approaches and understanding. They have become linguistic conveniences for those administrators responsible for making progress and demonstrating “wokeness.” And if we are honest, they are part of the patois of a new administrative layer within academe, the primary function of which is to avoid legal jeopardies based on bias.
The recent formulation of BIPOC and DEI task forces, working groups and committees at the level of campus administration and within departments at most colleges and universities across North America is just one more piece of evidence in the trend to corporatize our academic institutions. But higher education institutions, of all places, should be pushing back against this language-reduction enterprise. We should jump off the bandwagon, and continually interrogate the power of words. We should prod language itself to become more complex rather than simpler, and encourage a fluid and contingent vernacular that includes Black and Indigenous contributions.
To effectively do the work of dismantling systemic racism, we cannot afford to take shortcuts, linguistic or otherwise.