Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Limits of Diversity-As-Tolerance

Recently, Professor Sahar Aziz posted on this blog about how the concept of diversity as applied by institutions fails to account for inter-group difference. I want to continue this dialogue about the failings of the diversity idea by discussing how diversity celebrations, which we often see on college campuses, workplaces, and in broader society, may actually co-opt the conception of equality that underlies the diversity rationale.

Diversity as a concept is necessarily broad (because it ideally reflects the range of community that is "We the People") but it can be manipulated in ways that make "diversity" appear meaningless or worse yet defeat the goal it seeks to achieve. As Professor Aziz points out in her post, this happens in part because the institutional diversity agenda has become focused on celebration.

Celebrations recognize and validate the different racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and other groups are within a particular space. Indeed, validation and celebration are worthwhile as a part of a larger end. We have "Diversity Week" at many major universities. We have a long tradition of celebrating the history of a group to highlight the accomplishments of members of that group. Institutions had to pick a day/week/month to intentionally name those who are not being sufficiently recognized because otherwise such recognition would not happen. Such diversity celebration had to happen to force the majority to tolerate the minority.

Yet, in the post-civil rights 21st century, this concept has failed to grow beyond this diversity-as-tolerance model. As diversity has failed to diversify, failed to recognize and counter new forms and ends of discrimination, and failed to affirmatively foster the politics of equality, colorblindness and post-racialism have co-opted the underlying ideal of racial equality behind celebrating diversity.

We practice diversity celebrations in ways that signal that diversity is limited to celebration and bounded to a particular time.  These celebrations often gloss over conversations of institutional injustice and the celebrations themselves, though important, seem to amount to the minimum recognition historically marginalized groups need to feel somewhat satisfied.

This institutional approach, despite the intent of those who sponsor it and without engagement in the classrooms, offices, and the broader society, allows those who oppose diversity to treat diversity initiatives as a zero-sum game.  Diversity is argued to be exceptional.  The implication is that homogeneity--the homogeneity established by the traditions of racial subjugation and stay-in-your-place politics--is preferred. And conversations, policies, and doctrines that advocate for heightened inclusion of racial diversity thus become disfavored, while at the same time, diversity celebrations become a selling point for these same institutions, and, as Professor Nancy Leong has pointed out, making their presence (and the minorities involved) a commodity.

In this way of thinking, diversity that is perceived as encroaching on the privileges the majority believes it is entitled is equated to oppression of the majority.  (I explain here how the Supreme Court has participated in this process.) The history of marginalized groups thus becomes merely tolerated and society focuses its consciousness to what conforms to the received norm of homogeneity.

This approach to diversity fails to confront the boundaries and foster a dialogue that is about the everyday and everyone. It also fails to confront the project of delimiting race from our consciousness, despite the necessity of the diversity rationale claimed in cases like Grutter v. Bollinger.

In this sense, diversity-as-tolerance fails to be inclusive and distracts us from the end of equality.  The way we celebrate diversity instead fuels the ideologies of colorblindness and post-racialism. This suggests that the diversity project needs to be reimagined to focus on the ends of being present to the reality of diversity, the reality of oppression, and the goal of equality. In a future post, I will comment on what such a movement may require.

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