The Earth shook in my world earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race-based affirmative action policies and requirements weighted as factors in college and university admission decisions were no longer valid.

While this broad generalization oversimplifies the SCOTUS decision, the gravity of their pronouncement cannot be underemphasized. The court has struck down a pillar of legal, moral and ethical hope and decency established to help rectify years of inequity, discrimination and bias.

And now, smelling blood, some legislatures and politicians are misinterpreting the court’s ruling as a mandate to further degrade access to higher education for underrepresented constituents and minority communities.

I am equally alarmed about a widening trend to actually avoid words like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in today’s politically charged discourse. Fear, misunderstanding, bias and privilege have strengthened the attack on DEI in America. We seem more concerned about avoiding touchy labels than in addressing the underlying assumptions and misperceptions.

There are myriad reasons why DEI is under increased scrutiny, but as a Black and Mexican American and DEI practitioner in higher education, I want to ask those leading these attacks, “Why are you so afraid, and what really is driving your reactionary antagonism and fear?”

This attack on access to higher education represents an especially low blow. It also self-sabotages: Essential in the fight against ignorance, intolerance and systemic oppression, a vigorous higher education system provides critical building blocks in our nation’s struggles with labor shortages in the health-care and teaching professions, industry, agriculture, technology and research, and in government itself.

Education plays a key, decisive and irreplaceable role in strengthening our republic and ensuring that democratic principles now under attack are shored up, not weakened. Understanding the roots of this siege starts by examining the definitions and purposes of DEI efforts, which are largely undermined by equally misunderstood stories about reparations, sensationalistic focus on immigrants and the southern border, conspiracy theories and pathetic, transparent dog whistles like “replacement theory.”

I have facilitated hundreds of DEI education workshops, breaking through common barriers of fear and misunderstanding. Articulating the “melting pot versus the tossed salad” analogy helps to mitigate the visceral reactions to diversity and inclusion which, for many, feel synonymous with giving up one’s own identity or perhaps worse, assuming someone else’s.

Assimilation is not the answer. With a “melting pot,” everything blends, losing many of its original and unique properties. But consider, instead, a tossed salad with a leafy base and ingredients like tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, cheese and croutons. When the salad is assembled, the ingredients retain their color, shape, size, texture and taste. In fact, the collaboration is better because these properties are not lost. The ingredients are united by the leafy base and perhaps a dressing—in essence, our common bonds.

People may check out on DEI simply because they do not understand the words or meanings. For example, if I discuss an equally misunderstood hot-button topic like Critical Race Theory (CRT), people get uncomfortable. By avoiding buzz words, accusations or recriminations, we are more open to the discussion.

As illustration, in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s respected collection, Intersectionality, Crenshaw says people have layers of identity that shape who they are and their experiences. However, if more accurately framed as “peoples’ layers of historically marginalized identities create a uniquely oppressive experience for them,” that similar but edgier explanation may trigger angst or resistance from people cloaked in DEI fear.

This is why we desperately need DEI education, and we need it done right. That requires robust educational leadership, open, bias-managed dialogue and an assurance that many of tomorrow’s leaders, including Black, indigenous and people of color, can access a college education.

As chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sacred Heart University, the foundation of my work is promoting relationships and understanding. Without a rich, diverse student, faculty and staff community, conversations and the learning that accompanies this exploration will be dulled, narrow and less effective. Inclusive excellence is our goal, but not something we may ever totally achieve. It is a perpetual journey.

These conversations, ideals and philosophies come from a place of love and healing and are critical for our nation’s growth, prosperity and survival. A world devoid of an array of flavors, backgrounds, learning and unique cultural heritages is dystopian, driven by hate and fear, self-limiting and destined to fail except for those few who use chaos, misinformation and fear to protect their own avarice and stature.

Maurice D. Nelson is chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.