Taking stock in diversity

Last week Oren Cass ’05 wrote “Diversity isn’t a question of race.” While he is correct in the most basic sense—diversity is not bound to race to the exclusion of all other factors—his pedantic postulating misses the point. I would like to challenge his argument and explain why race does matter.

Cass makes two main assumptions, with neither of which I agree. One, the meaning of diversity is to force fundamentally different people into the same environment, and two, color-blindness should be the ultimate goal of our society. He then develops his argument—which I interpret as “I don’t see color, because noticing color is wrong, so let’s not have too many people of color”—through a misunderstanding of how race functions in society.

Diversity is a two-part deal. Just forcing people together is not the main point. People have to interact for diversity to mean anything. In the real world, this does not happen. Even those “acclimated to the presence of different skin colors” tend to stick to their own. If someone does not define diversity by race (or ethnicity, or culture, or color), then it is by socio-economic group or religion. By day people sit at work and teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but at night home is among the familiar.

College, however, is a totally artificial environment. At no other time in our lives (except perhaps in the nursing home) will we be surrounded primarily with people our own age. Unlike the real world, where you have to make an effort to meet the neighbors and arrange social activities, in college we have easy access to every other person on campus. And the admissions office does all the work of mixing for us. We are all here—black, Asian, mixed, and other, dispersed among the white. Before people like Cass decide that race is an insufficient factor of diversity, they need to interact with us. Learn from us. See if they feel the same afterwards. Despite our segregated campus, we say we are diverse because “Shaniqua” in class serves as the Ambassador of All Things Black. How many of you have gotten to know Shaniqua outside of class? Some of you have, but many have not taken advantage of the fact that Williams has done all the work of keeping different people in close proximity. This lack of interaction produces ideas like those of Cass. My table of five white people is just as diverse as a table of two white people, two black people and a Latino. We talk about baseball and writing and chemistry. I now have the understanding of different worldviews.

That reasoning is an excuse for reneging the responsibility of interaction with the Other. Being a writer or a baseball player is not the same as having the experiences and traditions of various racial and cultural backgrounds. The former are the end results of life, how you are now and where you want to go. The latter are about life itself, how you came to be the person you are. Character does not spring from a vacuum, and the implication that it does is the primary weakness in the Cassian argument.

Just as there is more to black history than slavery and civil rights, there is more to the “black experience” than discrimination. Mr. Cass attributes discrimination as the only “particular perspective [of black students] that should interest us.” This is disturbing and a sign that he does not have “[a]ll of the diversity [he] need[s].” True, all black people are not homogenous and we do not all have the same experiences, but many of the experiences we have are a direct result of being black. Listening to my elders pass along an oral family history provides a foundation for my identity, and how people respond to who I am strengthens that identity. No, I will not begin every conversation with I am black so what I am about to say will have significance to your diversity training, but sit through enough of my two-hour dinners and you will have a fair understanding of how my race and culture influence my worldview.

Insistence on color-blindness is the post-postmodern racism. Since overtly disliking people of color is no longer cool, the second best thing is to pretend we do not exist and to try to shame us when we resist. I don’t see color! Everyone is the same underneath! I want everyone to be just like me! That mindset is only slightly removed from the nineteenth-century idea that miscegenation would mix everyone not so that all would be equal, but so that civilized society would be free from the African presence.

I would hate to see a color-blind world. Color is beautiful and to ignore it is wrong. We do not ignore color in art, so why ignore it in life? The problems arise when people assign judgment values to color. Again, we do not do this in art—blue is not inherently inferior to red—so why do it in life?

Diversity will flourish only when we admit that race is real. Calling it a social construct does not make it any less real—there is nothing with meaning to human existence that is not a social construct. Instead of striving to deconstruct the differences among people of varying colors and meshing everyone into one white world, we need to focus on building cultural identity and the ability to effortlessly cross the color line from all sides. Pretending differences do not exist or do not matter is counterproductive to the racism-free, diverse society the majority profess to want.