When diversity fails: Tackling frustrations surrounding conversations on identity

February 17, 2016 by Raquel Douglas

You do not have to be around me very long to know that I’m from Texas. Even though I come from a fairly liberal city, I’m still from what many consider to be one of the most bigoted states, which is why I was reasonably shocked to realize that conversations on identity politics are handled much better back home than they are here on campus.

The reasons for this inevitably stem from our different experiences. Houston is an incredibly diverse city, so even those who grow up in homogenous (read: segregated) neighborhoods are forced to interact with other people’s cultures on a daily basis. Identity relations are not perfect by any measure, but conversations are a hell of a lot more productive when people are used to confronting and discussing opposing ideas. For instance, when a club at my high school put a Bible quote with scripture prominently on the stairwell of the school, we did not have shouting matches nor take aggressive action. The student body had a long conversation about why this was an issue for some and a passionate act of love for others, and we reached a productive end where people understood each other better.

I cannot say that this same climate exists on campus. For many, the College is the most diverse place they have ever been. Shocker, right? I’m not blaming students for growing up in more homogenous settings (I personally grew up in a predominantly Black, mostly poor neighborhood, while one of my best friends grew up in a predominantly White, middle-class area), but I am saying that without frequent exposure to other experiences, it becomes more difficult to have productive conversations on race, class, gender, etc.

It seems that, all too often, people at the College simply do not know how to approach or interact with other cultures and experiences. This means that things like the infamous “Taco Six” or Suzanne Venker fiascos become polarizing issues when they do not inherently have to be. Moreover, these tensions are often exacerbated by those who decide that their own uninformed opinions are facts. A prime example is the non-Muslim, non-Black student who told me that my head wrap was culturally appropriative of Muslim culture, ultimately ignoring the history of Black and African head wraps. Another example is the well-off person who argued that the reason I am where I am today, escaping the generational curse of poverty (hopefully), is solely because of my own hard work. This argument overlooks the systematic issues that keep poor people poor. Alternatively, some people, such as those who don’t understand the importance of an Asian studies concentration or the Black Lives Matter movement, choose to say nothing on these contentious issues because they are afraid they will offend someone or say something wrong, losing the opportunity to engage and learn. Others chose to essentialize the experiences of others in failed attempts to understand and claim that someone is competing in the “Oppression Olympics” when they point out that two experiences, such as being called out for privilege and being called a homophobic or racist slur, are not equal.

These are only a handful of experiences I have had here. The vast majority of conversations I have had about identity have not been this frustrating. The point of this opinions piece is neither to attack a certain group, especially since these things can apply to anyone, nor to simply hate on the College community. The point of this op-ed is to try and figure out how we, as a community, can do even better.

One of the reasons colleges heavily stress diversity is that there is so much that we can all learn from each other. That being said, it is critical to note that not everyone is willing to teach. Diversity only works if this learning actually happens, which it rarely seems to here. Diversity only works if it is paired with open-mindedness and a willingness to speak up and learn. However, a peek at Yik Yak threads and the low attendance at certain events make it clear that we do not always exhibit these traits. Diversity only works if we work at it.

Ultimately, we can hold all the informational meetings we want. We can fill the College’s walls with posters, table in Paresky for as many meals as we wish and create Facebook events to our hearts’ desires, but if only woke people (or those on the verge of becoming “woke” on these issues) attend these events, diversity fails yet again. We need to more productively make use of the diversity of student experiences, voices and backgrounds so that we can learn from each other. We all have a story to tell – although it is critical that we acknowledge that no one should ever be forced to share. We all have causes we are passionate about. We must (read: MUST) stop having unproductive, polarizing online arguments. We must stop trying to essentialize each other’s experiences. We must not try to explain realities that we do not know. Most importantly, we must stop and listen to one another.

We have been told that the most important things we will learn in college will happen outside the classroom. If we learn nothing from one another, then the value of our time here is worth significantly less.

Raquel Douglas ’19 is from Houston, Texas. She lives in Mills-Dennett.

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