Our all-too-tractable diversity problem

Caleb Headshots Xander Opiyo /THE REVIEW
Caleb Owens, Columnist and Development Officer.

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The new academic year brings with it new fabrications out of Hullihen about campus diversity, the glowing, colorful propaganda hot off the printers and slapped onto the student center walls. The new year also brings into focus the old facts about the truly lamentable state of diversity on our campus, the vast Sea of Whiteness again consuming The Green.

It seems that no number of initiatives, no amount of programming, can fix this problem, and this assessment would be basically correct. But, in my naive whiteness, I’m going to argue that the situation, at least in theory, is not entirely hopeless, although may fail a number of plausibility requirements.

We should begin from the opposing vantage— from the point of view of professors and students alike on this campus and beyond who, as this lamentable predicament surrounds us, offer their own lamentations about the state of higher education. We must turn to the (invariably white) crusaders against the Religion of Diversity and Inclusion, whose default line goes something like this:

“Colleges are too fixated on identity and making students feel comfortable, when their real task is to challenge students and make them feel extremely uncomfortable. Colleges and their administrations — with their emphasis on group identity above individuals, on pushing an all-inclusive ideological agenda — should be less focused on the institutional promotion of diversity and inclusion and more on forcing individuals to think for themselves.”

Amid what is largely a mass of typically colorblind gunk, there is a noble idea embedded in this passage. Namely, that higher education, as a rule— one applicable to any other kind of education— should above all begin with the premise that students have individual dignity and value and are on campus to develop and strengthen that individuality. We all attend college for what are at bottom very selfish reasons, with hopes that we come out just a little bit more developed and smarter than when we entered.

But too often, when our above crusader and his indignant, also invariably white, acolytes put forth this argument, their aims are hardly hidden. They call for an end to diversity initiatives, to the identity obsessions of campuses and the liberal leanings of professors, demanding something that better conforms to their “liberal”— increasingly qualified as “classical”— ideals.

Whatever you prefer to call it, sounds fine enough. But let’s consider the implementation of this proposal on the ground. The practical, and usually favored, outcome, achieved by eliminating the already limited (if by many measures costly, ineffective and ideologically excessive) diversity and inclusion efforts that do exist, would be a campus situation in which straight white people are even more comfortable and people of marginalized groups are, most likely, even less comfortable. The former would not have their “ideas challenged” at all, and the latter would be further thrust into a predicament that is too challenging, and at times outright dangerous, to be productive.

I smell a contradiction.

Let’s hone in on a familiar case study, where ethnic diversity in particular is a striking problem. On this campus— one that, like all others, at least nominally strives for a “more diverse” student and faculty composition— we have a truly remarkable surplus of white people, and a nearly invisible fraction of everything else.

A de facto segregation policy naturally emerges, in which the white kids basically just do their thing, while the kids of color are forced into generally isolated and limited communities and classes (imagine — can you? — being black and entering engineering on this campus) that strictly circumscribe their available interests and opportunities. Diversity initiatives often inadvertently widen these divides, affirming marginalized groups while alienating others, and hence reinforcing group divisions. What results is, effectively, two universities within one, one being much larger and better-funded than the other. The more familiar tensions between our university and Delaware State in fact take place right across The Green.

Many people are aware of this. As such, somewhat perversely, even more funding gets dumped into these “diversity” initiatives that take place almost exclusively at the level of numerical, impersonal indifference and empty rhetorical abstraction. They routinely fail. Not because of a shortage of money, but because of a shortage of will. And on this, I’m even willing to exempt Hullihen. No amount of money can change the fact that, when students of color visit and attend this institution, they can’t help but feel shocked and unwelcome— and that the majority of students here are responsible. And no amount of armchair social justice theorizing or redundant “educating” to the wrong audience on Twitter will get those responsible to take that responsibility seriously.

Let me put it a bit more plainly: Until white kids (and professors, though “kid” may still be the appropriate appellation)— especially those who profess the values of independent thought and individuality on campuses— recognize their own self-interest in a more diverse campus and start acting on it, students of color will continue to be repelled, and students of all colors will continue to be short-changed on their education.

Because college is, yes, above all a place to learn and be challenged by new ideas (a necessary condition of learning, of course). And, even, perhaps especially, for white kids, that simply cannot happen when nothing is forcing you to think about your whiteness and all of the assumptions it carries (which may or may not be as evil as some Twitter warriors claim— on this, I’ll remain agnostic— but there are unquestioned assumptions nonetheless). For as much as certain white people champion the virtues of college making students “uncomfortable,” they seldom seem willing to take on this discomfort themselves. Colleges should be places where, from skin color down to social class and sexuality (I understand I’m somewhat narrowly restricting this conversation to race, and for that matter two of them— but the same argument applies to any other majority-minority situation on campus), enough diversity is present to make a constructive amount of discomfort inescapable for everybody. This is, as I see it, an essential part of any worthwhile education— why leave home for here, one homogenous community for another?

Ideally, of course, if this is how we educate everybody, our world will be a bit more tolerant and a bit more loving, as well as a bit more critical and mutually appreciative. And the effect will be far more authentic and deeper than what any rote, ideological, two-hour sermon about “privilege”— not to mention the monthly emails from President Assanis reiterating the same empty bullet points and university web page hyperlinks— can achieve. “Diversity” might actually become a real, lived thing rather than a disingenuous, market-savvy, knee-jerk platitude.

But the present system amplifies the discomfort of students of color far beyond constructive levels and keeps white kids in a blissful, pathetic state of complacency. Deeper individuality is stunted on both ends by the de facto group segregation, which sends white kids off this campus just as naive as they were when they arrived, and leaves everybody else even more scarred and disillusioned than before. Opportunities for multicultural criticism and appreciation— both of which, as it’s often forgotten, should be taking place— never even get off the ground. In a state that is, all-around, pretty diverse (though still geographically segregated, something this university can and ought to be playing a chief role in addressing but is not), this is inexcusable.

And, from courses, to RSOs, to academic projects, opportunities for white kids to do their part are abundant. My freshman year, for instance, I joined the Colored Conventions Project, a groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting black history digital humanities project, of which I was one of but several white members. I entered with the swelling, insufferable confidence of a half-literate 18-year-old unable to contribute a whole lot— staying that way for a bit, while the graceful, patient souls around me put up with it— and left humbled by a deeper historical understanding and heightened, if necessarily limited, awareness of what minorities— from faculty, to staff, to students— feel and endure on this campus. Walking into that first meeting, swaggering confidence aside, was hard. It was new, often uncomfortable, and for these reasons among others, the experience was indispensable. I share this not to exempt myself, but to highlight the possibility of what I’m suggesting.

Because until white students express, or rather realize, their interest in making themselves uncomfortable, for their own good and everybody else’s, we will remain segregated. And if, nearly 70 years after the courts made it possible on this campus (see Parker v. University of Delaware, 1950), the prospect of desegregating makes you feel “threatened,” well, that’s the point.

Caleb Owens is a columnist and the Development Officer for The Review, and the former Editor in Chief of the newspaper. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of The Review’s editorial staff. Caleb may be reached at calowens@udel.edu.

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    Jonah 1 week

    “We must turn to the (invariably white) crusaders against the Religion of Diversity and Inclusion, whose default line goes something like this….”

    Why not name and quote actual “crusaders against the Religion of Diversity and Inclusion” rather than invent a paraphrase that reflects your own biased view of an ideological opponent? You’ve set up a classic straw man: a weak opponent who says what you need him to say so you can then knock him down and look clever for doing so. You ought to know better than that, especially since the quotation you invented doesn’t sound like any of the critics I’ve actually heard and read…but I think you know that too.

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