9.29.2006

Diversity is a Noun

On the front page of University Business' website is a feature story
on "diversity presidents." The story goes on to talk about how
universities can hire presidents who are committed to diversity on
campus, but I find the phrase, "diversity presidents," a troublesome
one.

It's not as bad as what I've heard from some people -- of all races --
when they talk about a candidate being a "diversity candidate." What
they mean when they say that is that the candidate is of the minority
population. But one person cannot be a diversity! So even though
they don't mean it, University Business is using the word in the same
way it is often misused.

Also, I may be exaggerating a little here to make a point, but in my
opinion, diversity for diversity's sake is not as important to
institutions as is the ability for individuals and groups within that
institution to be aware of, understand, respect, and gain from
perspectives other than their own.

Let me unpack this point a little. First, my caveat at the beginning.
I do think that diversity for diversity's sake is important in its own
right: where possible, under-represented groups ought to have extra
attention given to them in regards to opportunities to contribute and
grow. Anybody who has influence in the amount of diversity in an
institution should be sensitive to this.

Some would say that this is the most important outcome of diversity.
I would not always agree. I would hold up as more important what
diversity brings to an institution. And let me also say that these
two goals need not be pitted against each other, for diversity for
diversity's sake is most powerful when those who are under-represented
are not only allowed in but allowed to make a difference.

So let me return to this notion of having your individual and group
perspectives enhanced. The privilege of the majority, whether it is
via race, gender, or sexual orientation, is that you don't have to
think too hard about the issue you're in the majority on.

For example, as a male, I can choose to be aware of women's issues and
even get off my duff and do something about them. But I don't have
to, and if I don't, my life goes on just fine. Not so for women, for
whom women's rights isn't just a cause, it's their life.

You can say the same about any other way in which there are majority
and minority groups. And the irony of this is that where we are
"privileged" to not have to worry about things, that "privilege" is
actually a detriment to ourselves and to the organizations we are a
part of. White people in a sea of white people will have little to no
need to stretch in their thinking of race in America, straight people
in a sea of straight people the same.

But it's that stretching that leads to good things. Personally, your
mind expands and you become more tolerant in a good way, more
sensitive, more open. Students learn more, businesses get more
responsive, service agencies develop more creative strategies.

And that's why diversity is good. Not just because you are opening
the doors to more kinds of people is good for society, but because
it's good for you and for the institution inside those doors.

This point was made well by the University Business article, in that
it urged administrators to seek out presidential candidates that had a
true commitment to diversity. I would go further and state that the
best candidates are those for whom diversity has ceased to be an
issue, even the most important of many, and has become part of the
perspective through which all things are viewed.

To use the gender example again, I could be the most vigilant of
women's rights activists you know, of either gender; but if I am but
one person, then at the end of the day I retain my male perspective
and my male privileges. But if I am joined with my wife, then women's
rights are no longer some issue I feel strongly about, but a reality
that directly affects me -- both positively and negatively.

So I guess that's what I'm trying to say. When we use "diversity" as
an adjective, it sounds like a cause we're rallying around, and
however spirited we might be, we can still go home and not have to
change our lives or perspectives. How many "diversity" seminars have
we all attended where our minds and views were stretched, and we left
weary, more knowledgeable, . . . but thankful that we could just go
home and not have to deal with it anymore?

But if we intentionally connect with those who are different from us,
intimately enough that we hear their concerns and share their views
and feel their struggles, we're better for it, and hopefully so are
they. And then you could say we have something: diversity, in the
noun form.

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