Overlooking the obvious

I would like to challenge Oren Cass’ conclusion that “race is not especially relevant to the diversity about which Williams cares so greatly.” After reading his last paragraph, I realized that according to the logic he presented, Williams was diverse in 1793 and nothing needed to change after that.

The men that matriculated into the first class of this institution had various interests, ambitions and worldviews; they epitomized the liberal arts education we all so fervently seek. His logic dictates that Williams has not improved since the eighteenth century, and he is unclear as to whether he believes it to be deteriorating.

Not only do I take issue with Cass’ conclusions, I find his methodology to be particularly perturbing. The attempt to make things ‘simple’ by focusing his argument on that of black and white students is counter-intuitive. His claim was that he believes it is problematic to reduce diversity to racial diversity, but his article did little but revel in the rationale of the reductive.

In response to Cass, I want to make it very clear that I too was taught to believe in ideals that seek to counteract what can be described as the plagues of human existence. I was taught that racism could only be countered by attempting to understand the substance of a person. Ignorance can only be defeated through education and empathy. Miscommunication can only be stopped by inclusive listening, rather than a practice of hearing only what reinforces your preconceived truths. Oren stated that: “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.” I was taught that only two things come from naïveté: a lack of thoroughness and a willingness to be deceived.

A great responsibility is handed down to you when you are asked to be the bearer of such ideals. Along with your belief comes an acceptance of a challenge to be the change that you want manifested in your epoch. That entails a very acute perception of how and why such ideals are not realized. In the United States, white privilege exists. As an outsider, it is one of the first things that you perceive. I recognize it because it is undeniably integrated in the culture of any post-colonial country, such as Jamaica. I would never presume to recite American history to an American, therefore I will assume that you know exactly what you are referring to when you cite “systemic racism” as the producer of the unique black experience[s] that “offer a particular perspective that should interest [you].”

Unfortunately, when you reduce the black experience to that of discrimination and oppression, you fail to realize several important things. What has been overlooked in this conversation is the dynamic nature of the black experience in America (together with the experience of the rest of the Diaspora) that has in many ways converted a history of oppression into one of perseverance and celebration of the inherent beauty and excellence of the race. No one will applaud you for recognizing that the color of my skin will not predetermine my interests, my likes, my dislikes and my worldview.

Furthermore, it is destructive to think that you can ignore someone’s race, and thus their culture, simply because you think you have an understanding of their common interests. We may both like watching Friends, but a critical understanding of even that particular “common interest” forces one to invoke some knowledge of what has formulated each of our preferences for viewing a TV show that details the trials and tribulations of six white thirty-somethings that live in New York City.

I want to believe that we are not in the business of stating the obvious, and investing ourselves in the superficial at this institution. Therefore, the point of Cass’ opinion could not have been that we are all different. Although he does not doubt that race has ‘something’ to do with diversity, he claims that it is not “especially relevant” to diversity at Williams.

So my question is, “What do you think is most relevant to diversity?” You fail to denounce any belief in a hierarchy when it comes to aspects of one’s being that should be relevant to such a discussion. Your argument implies that something more relevant than race deserves our focus. What exactly should we focus on?

Policy is a very jarring sphere when one is trying to realize ideals. One cannot reverse anything that has embedded itself in the institutional fabric of a country or an institution without some understanding of the most urgent, relevant or important aspects of said fabric. This is where statistics come into play. What is the probability that this school would not look like it did 210 years ago, were there not a national focus on race?

It is difficult to conduct an analysis at that broader level without first doing so at the personal level. As a black Jamaican woman with an evolving understanding of my interests and world view, I cannot at anytime pretend to know to what degree my race has contributed to the determination of these things.

I respect anyone who is brave enough to really see me for who I am, and I resent the presumption that any aspect of my being can be extricated from the perception of others.

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