Diversity isn’t a question of race

I would like to challenge the notion that race is especially relevant to the diversity about which Williams cares so greatly.

When we speak of diversity as being desirable to the College, we have some conception of what we actually want. Our education will serve us best if diversity provides the following:

1) We should have the opportunity to learn from people who are different from us. Our worldviews should be challenged, and we should issue challenges to others. An education, and a life for that matter, is richer for the variety encountered therein.

2) We should be forced to work and live in an environment where people are different in fundamental ways.

There is a real world out there, and that real world is a diverse place. Even if we could become great writers, economists and chemists in a completely homogenous environment, learning to interact with all sorts of people is a skill in its own right, and one that will be crucial when we leave Williams.

To accomplish these goals, Williams needs to be a community whose members have different interests, perspectives, ideas, experiences and skills. The courses and events which are offered should focus on and celebrate those differences. This is the very essence of diversity.

Not included anywhere in this utopian vision of Williams is the question of race (for purposes of simplicity I will use the example of black vs. white, although the issue also applies to other minority groups). Indeed, race would be an important element of our community’s diversity only if either a) black people are somehow different from white people in terms of their interests, ideas, etc. or b) the physical attribute of skin-color is in and of itself important to diversity.

That the former might be the case, and black people are different from white people, is a possibility directly opposed to every notion of color-blindness that we should support. I was taught in my carefree elementary school days that the color of one’s skin means nothing about one’s personal characteristics, and I guess I am so naïve as to still believe it. If being black or white doesn’t make one different, the only other possibility is that the racial distinction “stands for” something. If “black” or “white” is synonymous with “poor” or “rich,” “smart” or “dumb,” “strong” or “sweet-smelling,” then an emphasis on race might be logical. But to say that people of a racial group should be treated as if all of them are all any of those things (or as if they are all anything) is politely referred to as stereotyping or more correctly called racist.

If the latter is the case and skin-color itself matters, this could be for only two reasons. The College might be engaged in a cynical P.R. game to get pictures of “diverse”-looking people in its brochures. Otherwise, it might believe that students are such bigoted imbeciles that we must be acclimated to the presence of different skin colors in certain quantities right now, or else we will not be unable to handle such interactions later in life. I sincerely hope that neither is true.

Yet without any clear rationale, our community is committed to treating race as a proxy for diversity. In the purported interest of diversity, our admissions policy (according to the Supreme Court amicus brief recently filed by Williams and 27 other colleges) admits three times as many black students as it would if we “[carved] out race from all other kinds of diversity.” We blame lack-of-diversity for the small numbers of black JAs, CC reps and professors. We even accuse white students who don’t show up at black convocation of only “giving lip service” to diversity.

I would suggest, instead, that Williams is an incredibly diverse place. I have talked late into the night with friends who want to be investment bankers and friends who want to live in log cabins. I eat dinner with baseball players, Record editors, chemists and aspiring novelists. I play broomball with future women’s counselors and present chauvinist pigs. All of the diversity I need – differing interests, perspectives, ideas, experiences and skills – is readily available. How many of those people are black and how many are white? It doesn’t matter.

It is true that, as a result of systemic racism in our country, black students are likely to have experienced a greater degree of discrimination than other students and therefore offer a particular perspective that should interest us. But the same can be said of unattractive students, overweight students or even blondes.

A race cannot hold a monopoly on discrimination, nor can discrimination hold a higher place in the pantheon of life experience. Racial diversity does contribute to diversity, but it is not the Holy Grail. In fact, compared to the varieties of diversity mentioned above, which ensure a vibrant and varied set of personalities, it is of lesser concern.

A group of five white people can be just as diverse as a group of two white people, two black people and a Latino. I have seen no evidence that a random sampling of Williams students would be more or less different in their beliefs, values and interests depending on the group’s racial composition.

To lose sight of that fact, and become focused on color as an especially relevant indicator of personality and worldview, is to strive for a diversity divorced from the goals which we want to achieve.