I find a whole lot of hoopla swirling around this thing we call “diversity.” By and large, these days people readily admit to being “for” diversity. A former colleague of mine, though, became exasperated with the trite, mechanical way many people rally around the concept, claiming to be firmly planted in the “diversity camp.” He would say, “Diversity? How can you be against it? It just is.”
So, what do we mean when we say we are “for” diversity? I think, at least in part, we are saying we want to see the variety of genders, races, ethnicities, and classes living in our communities permeate every aspect of our institutions. People’s “particularities”–their background (education, sex/gender, race, ethnicity, dis/abilities, and class)–shape and color their perspectives. By incorporating the wide swath of humanity into the public sphere, making room for everybody to contribute to society what is uniquely theirs, not only enriches us, but makes for a more equitable world. After all, when your voice is “heard” and when you see yourself reflected in the wider culture (legal rulings, the arts, economic policies), you are less likely to feel disenfranchised.
Sounds good. But how does it work “in the real world?” It’s bumpy. No doubt the big push to “bring in diversity” is a response crafted to rectify the practice (at least in the US) of keeping white men entrenched in powerful and influential positions while discriminating against people who are NOT white men, oftentimes strategizing to keep those “other people” out of such positions. This is an oversimplification. We know that during different periods of American history Irish men, Italian men, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim men have been discriminated against as well. Other factors (economic and social) come into play which is one reason the subject of diversity quickly becomes unwieldy.
We scramble nowadays, often under institutional pressure, to display people in the work place who are NOT white men, placing these “not white men” in positions of power and influence just BECAUSE they are not men and not white. Behind this thrust seems to be the belief that white men think a certain way, Asian women think in another way, and LGBTQI Mexicans think differently still. And so on. Does one’s physiognomy determine one’s thinking and perspective? If so, isn’t there an essentialism at work here–the same essentialism that is at the heart of racist ideology? Or, do we believe that people’s life experiences are so vastly different from each other’s, resulting in a chasm so broad and deep, it’s impossible to surmount? Is it ever possible for a straight African-American woman to know where a transgendered Appalachian individual is “coming from?”
My local newspaper runs a column titled “In My Shoes” and invites people from the community to send in their stories. Recently, Mattie Coll wrote about growing up in the Latino community (Virginia-born mother and Puerto Rican father). She identifies as “Other” on official forms and writes, “I feel as at home in the Spanish grocery store down the street looking for saffron rice as I do at the local Martin’s [chain grocer] renting ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ at the Red Box there.” Then Mattie adds, “Isn’t it time to recognize that the bicultural population has a special perspective?”
A couple of years ago, I served on a committee at my university tasked with writing an official statement about “diversity.” The chair of the committee, an African-American man, looked out at us (three women and one man), sitting around a table and noted how non-diverse the group was, claiming that except for the “woman factor,” he was the only one that represented “diversity.” I disagreed with him. He said that, based on my physical appearance, I look like I have Northern European, notably Irish, roots. I do. However, I was born and grew up in Argentina, learning Spanish while attending Spanish-speaking schools and learning English at home. My experiences–especially learning two languages simultaneously, (hidden from his view)–contoured me in ways at odds with his visual assessment. I’m quite at home in the “barrio,” sipping maté with the women, talking about their domestic (usually) concerns. However, I am not “barrio born and bred.”
Must I be “barrio born and bred” to effectively bridge the differences between us? What does that even mean? Does it mean that somebody who looks like me (Northern European genetic make-up with southern hemisphere world experience) and the women with whom I have sipped maté see the world in such different ways that any lack of representation in the public sphere of people that are like us would make both (or either one) of us feel like an outsider? If so, how does that work from a practical standpoint? Since no two people (even identical twins) are absolutely alike, how do we get everybody represented fairly in our institutions? I would be interested to hear responses from FAR readers.
Of course I support “equal opportunity” in employment and every place else. One reason I’m not a fan of royalty is that inheriting royal status (wealth, privilege, etc.) through accident of birth doesn’t strike me as something that allows for “equal opportunity.” No one group of people owns all of a culture’s resources. Our foremothers worked diligently to insure that women (especially) gain the right to vote, inherit property, and control our own bodies.
I’m raising questions right now about the ultimate effectiveness of climbing on the “diversity bandwagon” without having a clear view of the path we’re on or where we’re going. We celebrate diversity and multiculturalism, believing that “it’s all good” without a clear articulation of what the words mean, let alone looking for nuances that enable us to critique the concepts reasonably.
As my former colleague noted, diversity is something that just is. It even exists WITHIN particular groups. All white men, all Asian women, and all members of the LGBTQI Mexican community do not think alike. Are we relying on stereotypes when we configure our work places with people we think reflect diversity? Sometimes diversity lies beneath the surface.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.