A Constructive Diversity Discussion

by Dan Chiu | 11/8/06 6:00am

Two weeks ago, Provost Barry Scherr held a panel meeting to discuss filling two open administrative positions in the Office of Pluralism and Leadership and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. During the meeting, a few students made what I felt were two poignant but troubling observations: first, that there were very few white males present and second, that there were those who questioned the very existence of these two offices. The only conclusions I could draw from these observations were that either a) there was apathy among the white community because they felt that OPAL, IDE and the diversity initiatives associated with them had little relevance to their lives or b) there was a broad impression that diversity was "over-hyped" and rendered meaningless from the sheer institutional emphasis placed upon it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Constructing a diverse campus is not some misguided obsession. It is not some special-interest concern consigned only to minority groups on campus. It is an admirable goal that we all have a stake in.

I admit that at times, it can seem like we are constantly being "beaten over the head" with diversity. From the moment we step on campus as freshmen, we are inundated with countless presentations and speeches about the value of having students from a multiplicity of backgrounds. In his op-ed ("Dartmouth's Diversity Obsession," Nov. 2), Jacob Baron '10 wonders whether all the lectures and literature on diversity amount to nothing but empty rhetoric. He observes that "photographs of diverse groups tend to appear posed, and verbal claims of diversity tend to be taken with a grain of salt." Indeed, pictures of students of different ethnic backgrounds sitting happily together on the Green can sometimes seem awfully contrived. Even the most optimistic among us begin to wonder whether the College is being a bit disingenuous in promoting what many, cynically or not, deem to be an illusion of diversity. Baron goes on to imply that we should change our public relations campaign to reflect the truth -- by emphasizing, for instance, the College's aesthetic assets and undergraduate focus, and de-emphasizing diversity.

But the way to solve the problem is not by down-playing diversity to reflect the truth, but by working to change the truth itself. The very fact that claims of diversity at Dartmouth often ring hollow is the biggest reason to be shouting and clamoring about its importance, not quieting down. It is indeed a fundamental component of our College. It is not, nor should it be, a "peripheral concern," and the fact that many still do not recognize this only reinforces the need to affirm the value of diversity every opportunity we get.

However, we need to act in a constructive way that engages the entire campus. I do not doubt that Baron understands the importance of diversity and has his heart in the right place. I would say that most Dartmouth students have the right intentions and theoretically want to see a more inclusive and diverse campus. Yet there is a lingering feeling among some students that too much emphasis is placed upon it.

Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that many students, particularly those in the majority white community, feel detached from the dialogue and thus fail to see the relevance of diversity to their own lives. Perhaps they feel that because they are not a part of a minority community, they have little or no part in the College's grand vision of diversity. Indeed, for too long it has been perceived as a minority issue to be relegated to the underrepresented communities on campus. This perception needs to change. Diversity should not be an issue only for minorities, but for all of us. Baron implies that diversity (ethnic diversity in particular) is advertised with such vigor in order to attract minority students -- that it is somehow targeted to us for our sake. But it is my sincere hope that these campaigns are meant to attract members of the majority white community as well who also value a diverse student body. A more diverse campus is meant to benefit and enrich the lives of all students, not just minorities.

Another reason for the white community's sense of detachment might be the fact that we often construct diversity in our minds in very narrow terms of race and ethnicity, when in fact we should broaden our scope of diversity to include differences in gender and gender identity, socio-economic status, class, religion, etc. Recognizing that facets of identity other than race also contribute to a diverse campus will hopefully increase the number of students who feel that they do in fact have a stake in the issue. The fact that race is so immediately visible often makes it the focus of diversity dialogues. However, we should not fall into the trap of defining diversity on purely racial terms.

In the end, the student body must come to realize that diversity has less to do with numbers and having a particular skin color and more to do with the type of environment that pervades our campus. True diversity depends not on having a certain percentage of minority students, but on creating a tolerant environment that accepts and welcomes differences in backgrounds and opinions. We are all responsible for and have much to gain from the realization of that environment. The creation of this type of campus is something that all of us, minority and majority, must invest in. Only by recognizing that we all benefit from a more diverse campus -- and that its creation requires our collective effort -- will diversity cease to be viewed as hollow rhetoric and become a true defining quality of the College.