Saturday, October 13, 2012

"Diversity": What we talk about when we prefer not to talk about race & racial difference

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with a group looking over a draft of "strategic plans" and noticed that the ever-popular phrase "respect for the diversity of people" was listed as part of the vision. Almost any and every time you read university visions, you'll encounter that wording "respect of diversity." The phrase is a well-intentioned, catchall way of indicating that the group or institution is not racist, not sexist, not homophobic, not anti-Semitic, and so forth.

My university has a "statement on diversity," which reads:
SIUE is committed to education that explores the historic significance of diversity in order to understand the present and to better enable our community to engage the future.

Integral to this commitment, SIUE strives for a student body and a workforce that manifests diversity.
Although "diversity" wording is often linked to universities' racial histories, you rarely come across direct references to race and African Americans in those statements.  One reason those universities statements focus on diversity is because of the difficulty that people have talking about race.

In an article that I read years ago about early origins of discrimination, researchers discovered that families participating in a study had trouble addressing racial attitudes. "Many just couldn't talk about race," noted the reporter, "and they quickly reverted to the vague 'Everybody's equal' phrasing." People are well-versed asserting that "everybody's equal" and "under the skin, we're all the same;" we can "celebrate diversity;" universities continually point to statements noting that we strive "for a student body and a workforce that manifests" diversity."

But when it comes to have a conversation about race and racial differences, people falter or more notably slip into silence. The word "diversity" and its frequent use in university vision statements, I've discovered, have somehow become ways of erasing racial difference and muting conversations about race.      

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even if it makes you uncomfortable, I feel discussions like this are important. Not that one person has all the answers but I feel like sharing ideas and learning what other ideas are out there and how other people feel about different situations is a good thing....