What is diversity?
People talk about it all the time. We say we want to increase diversity. We want to have more diversity on our faculty or in our workforce. We want to manage diversity for success. We have diversity programs and diversity training and diversity workshops. So we must know what diversity is, right?
Isn’t diversity what those Other people have?
You know, sort of like a disease. Everybody but white males has Diversity, and if we get more of those Others, we can catch some Diversity. (Though we may have to Lower Our Standards to get the Diversity.)
I have never been a proponent of the view of diversity that has it residing in or on the individual bodies of white women or women or men of color. You don’t possess diversity by virtue of being disabled, or by being gay, or by being from a lower socioeconomic class. I have actually heard people, educated people in universities, talk about the need to “get more diverse individuals in here”, as if one black body somehow carried around a certain amount of diversity that was larger than any amount of diversity a white body could carry. Well, of course, a white body doesn’t carry any diversity, does it?
Diversity, as a descriptor, is a characteristic of a group, not of an individual. Individuals are not diverse; groups may be more or less diverse, more or less homogeneous, depending upon their makeup.
So what are diversity initiatives in higher education about? Or, what should they be about? Some people think it’s just about race, and it bothers them. Thomas Benton recently complained about this in the Chronicle:
…what I see is that race has become a proxy for all the forms of diversity that elite institutions can’t, or don’t want to, include.
I think most Americans of all races would agree that individuals of talent, who work hard but lack inherited privileges deserve some help, even if they do not belong to preferred minority groups. Any effort to truly diversify an educational setting has to take many variables into account, particularly class, or it will, in the end, become a magnifier of social inequality and a source of inter-group antagonism.
But perhaps that is the real purpose of higher education as it is currently organized, or at least that is how it looks to growing numbers of excluded people. And that’s what people are voting against in states such as California and Michigan. It’s about class.
What’s bothering Benton is this: he’s a white male who came from a lower socioeconomic group; to have achieved his present position as a professor is truly an outstanding accomplishment. He doesn’t like being included under the banner of “white male privilege” because he knows he had to overcome the obstacles and bias of class to attain his success. Why are you talking about race, he asks, when what you should be talking about is class? Those African Americans who are having problems achieving are hampered more by their class than by their race.
Well, what’s wrong with this argument? Doesn’t it make sense? Why shouldn’t we be more concerned with helping poor whites measure up than we are with how economically privileged blacks are doing?
Besides constructing diversity as a zero-sum game, there’s a fundamental error in this conception of what diversity is all about. Rather than take it on myself, I’m going to quote David S. Owen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Diversity Programs for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Louisville. Professor Owen’s remarks originally appeared in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he has given me permission to repeat them here. Owen is responding to Benton’s article, and argues that while class is definitely a part of diversity, Benton misunderstands what diversity initiatives are all about.
While the author recognizes that social locations — defined by race, class, and language, among others — are “serious barriers” to access and success in higher education, he fundamentally conceives of diversity as a recognition that some individuals are different from the norm (white, male, middle-class, Christian, etc.). The presumption here is that those who have the normed identities are not affected by social structural barriers. This makes such identities relatively invisible, so that diversity is about people who are located outside of the norm, denying that those with normed identities are advantaged by them.
This problematic framing of the matter leads to a further misunderstanding concerning what it is that diversity programs and initiatives seek to achieve. The author argues that the list of barriers ought to be expanded beyond race, and that we should “help” those who face the barriers so that they can succeed in college.
But diversity is not about helping those who face barriers because they do not fit the norm; it is fundamentally about restructuring the social system so that the barriers are eliminated. … Indeed, this confusion about the meaning of diversity has led many institutions to use the language of inclusion and equity, not that of diversity, to name their efforts.
Once one understands diversity not as a celebration of difference, but as a demand for substantive inclusion and equity, then the apparent conflict between race and class evaporates. For when our efforts are focused on identifying and dismantling the structural barriers to inclusion and equity, all such structures deserve our attention. To be sure, some are more deeply embedded in our social history, perhaps because they were once established and supported in the law or explicit policy. But certainly race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religious practice are central social identities that systemically advantage or disadvantage individuals, and each deserves the attention of our diversity efforts.
Now there’s a definition of diversity initiative I can get behind. This is a much more radical understanding of what diversity is about. I think the opponents of diversity, like Roger Clegg and his Orwellian Center for Equal Opportunity understand this, and this is why they have put up such an organized, nationwide fight against diversity initiatives and programs. They know that it isn’t just about bringing in a few token Others and dressing them up like white males. They know it’s about fundamentally changing the rules of the game.
In another post, I’ll talk about the business case for diversity.