While it might be tempting to criticise the vocabulary explored in this study, and urge a revolution in the terms by which we understand and express racial, cultural and linguistic difference, the truth is that the history of these contested, embarrassing, overused, misunderstood, and much maligned terms charts the development of greater awareness of the need for equality in the cultural sectors.

It would not be particularly helpful to jettison “diversity” – in the way that “multiculturalism” was jettisoned – simply because it has become too broad a concept. And while there is some discomfort with the language explored here, there is also no doubt that it has on many occasions allowed conversations to take place that have not taken place by other terms. The conversations have not always been equitable, but it takes more than language to change power structures and social hierarchies.

The very fact that policy makers and funders have sought to describe the vicissitudes of difference and inequality is a testament to the courage and tenacity of individuals who have set in place structures, initiatives and ways of thinking that seek to challenge the status quo. Initiatives such as Creative Access or policy structures such as ACE’s Creative Case for Diversity do succeed in creating change at individual and institutional levels. Paradoxically, in order to create change, they have drawn upon an inherited language (only one of the terms discussed here is a recent neologism). Naturally, this has been a language that bears the stigmata of history, of slavery, racialised power structures, and colonialism. This goes some way to explain our discomfort with a great deal of this discourse; it is as if alongside our freshest utterances and aspirations the skeletons of our past were hanging out to dry, haunting and taunting every attempt to change. Our language today emerges from its past, and will inevitably carry with it that baggage. As Gillian Beer puts it Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, “Working with, and within, language is to work with a medium inevitably imbued with the communal past, drenched with what has been. In language others are always implicit, others who have used the same terms in different conditions.”

It is worth remembering that the English language is notably mobile and spongelike, ungoverned by any authority like the French Academy. The ultimate rule has always been that of usage. With time, words move and shift their meanings to reflect our social conditions. We are lucky that no one can really control or fix the language, because as speakers, and leaders, we all have it within our power to condition the way language allows us to think about and construct race, culture, ethnicity and difference. Ultimately the language can only be as good – as limiting or liberating – as the society within which it flows. The process of creating a more representative cultural sector relies on a number of continued processes which are not limited to a rigorous awareness our language.

History has been crucial in forming not only our languages but also our power structures, and it is through a renewed and deliberate remembering of history that this conversation can really develop. It is deeply unfashionable if not contentious to advocate for an engagement with Britain’s repressed histories of colonialism and racialisation. Indeed some critics feel we do this too much. Yet if this study has surprised me in one particular way, it is in how crucial a historical perspective has been in opening up the words explored here. As cultural leaders we could do more to encourage openness and awareness of the economic, political and cultural processes that have made the equalities movement necessary. Doing so should not mean abjection, humiliation and guilt for the white population – most of whom have been historically exploited themselves thanks to entrenched class inequality. Instead, this process might involve encountering the history of colonialism, slavery, nationalism and identity from a more differentiated perspective. While uncomfortable, this process could be deeply liberating for all involved. Paul Gilroy has made this point passionately in the concluding pages of After Empire, when he writes that “we must be prepared to step back audaciously into the past.”

Making the cultural sectors, both publicly funded and commercial, more representative of our society requires continued commitment from leaders in organisations of all sizes. Commitment needs to be expressed in the form of new structures, organisational change and focused initiatives which rely on rigorous self-awareness on the part of individuals and institutions. People working at every level of cultural organisations need to be encouraged and empowered to have a “settled and intelligent” view of these issues, which in turn requires them to have time to inform themselves and reflect. Change relies upon a continued critical engagement with both the language and lived experiences of inequality. Thus reporting and statistical data will continue to be important as tools for describing and understanding where we are. Change will also depend on open dialogue, with artists, practitioners, audiences and participants feeding into the evolving terms of debate and policy.