A New Conception of Diversity

by Zak Moore | 11/16/06 6:00am

In our Dartmouth community, which puts a very high premium on pluralism, we should also tolerate and seek to understand a diverse range of opinions on the nature of diversity. A point that too often gets lost in the larger debates about mascots, affirmative action and the like is that there is more than one conception of diversity, and not all of them are positive. In the quest to achieve an optimal learning environment, we sometimes counterproductively limit the meaning of diversity to certain racial groups and skin colors.

The idea that diversity is necessarily, unfailingly and inherently good is a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of saying that socialism is a good idea badly applied. Diversity is not inherently good, just as attending a spectacular school like Dartmouth is not inherently good. They are not ends in themselves but means toward an understanding of the world.

Dartmouth should focus on diversity in terms of life experience. Some of the most interesting discussions I have ever had have been with people of diverse backgrounds. Debating the merits of the jury system with an exchange student from Lithuania in the kitchen of a fish restaurant. Gaining insight into the average Iranian perception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from a woman on a New York City subway. Arguing about philosophers and war with an 80-year-old communist woman protesting the war outside a local city hall.

All of these valuable conversations were the result of common intellectual interests that transcend petty differences like skin color and religion. In our academic context, real diversity means accepting, debating and learning from the most talented and intelligent students. More important than race are the common bonds of intellectual curiosity that will bring students together more effectively than quotas.

On the other side of the spectrum is artificial diversity, the worst interpretation of diversity. Artificial diversity attempts to classify students by having them check boxes of race and hypocritically claims that while everyone should tolerate other ethnicities, no one can really understand them. The most progressive step we have taken so far allows someone to "please check all that apply." However, the step that is really needed is the abolition of questions like these altogether.

When college admissions offices attempt to secure diversity through percentages of racial groups, they create a climate of hostility. This leads to assumptions on both sides of academic inferiority and unfair privilege. Everyone feels cheated; nobody wins.

How long ago was it that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream that people "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?" Skin color, rather than character and mind, seems to be the primary concern. Stephen Colbert satirizes our society well in his jokes about his "black friend Allen" and his "Jewish friend Jon." When Colbert says that he "doesn't see color," everybody laughs. This joke is very revealing: Our society is still very fixated on race.

The most important levels of diversity are intangible, and are the levels hardly ever discussed. Diversity of experience and the resultant outlook on life -- opinion -- are most important. People are so defensive, having been classified into boxes, that there is very little tolerance of those who step out of theirs. It is great to have pride in ethnicity and religion, but when this leads to the immediate denunciation of others' opinions or beliefs as racist or sexist or wrong, then it has ceased to be respect for personal heritage and has turned into a personal, social and academic disability.

This disability manifests itself in political and social debates of every kind. It was very prominent in the immigration discussions of last spring. Professors and students alike decried anyone who opposed illegal immigration as racist, anyone who supported stricter border control as more racist and anyone who wanted to promote American heritage as unbelievably racist.

The bottom line is that we must take a more nuanced approach than simply assuming that "diversity" equals percentage of racial minorities. What we should strive for instead is diversity of life experience. For some people, race, religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs and other factors may define their experiences. We should let people define themselves in terms of personal experience rather than by a multiple choice of six races. We should value diversity based on the understanding we can gain from diverse backgrounds, not on superficial appearance.

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