Are Diversity Discussions Useful?

Brian T. Johnson

At the University of Missouri, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative sponsors a series of discussions entitled "You at Mizzou," focusing on diversity issues at the state university system's flagship campus. The events are arranged as dialogue sessions in a small group setting, with a facilitator introducing the topic in the form of a question. 

The monthly forum challenges participants to "discuss your differences and discover your similarities in a safe environment." Students, faculty and staff are enticed by tantalizing possibilities of "breaking down the barriers so we can foster a more inclusive campus community, which in turn yields a richer academic environment." 

In other words, it’s a textbook diversity seminar experience. 

I attended the opening dialogue in the series, in which students were asked whether we "are there yet?" when it comes to diversity at MU. What "there" means was not precisely spelled out, but in general the question seemed to beg a reply in the negative: "No, we're not there yet." If we were, presumably administrators wouldn't have scheduled another half dozen dialogues on the subject! 

My modest contribution that night was that while the university may not be as diverse as some would like, opportunities to encounter and interact with individuals of widely varying backgrounds are abundantly available - if one chooses to do so. I shared of my own such experiences, and thought aloud about the values of cross-cultural connections on campus. I suggested that perhaps simply making a point to share life with people of different backgrounds might be individually and collectively more beneficial than diversity programming itself. 

While the observation sparked a positive reaction from much of the group, a couple participants (a student co-facilitator and a faculty participant) consistently endeavored to redirect our attention to real or perceived shortcomings of the campus community. While past and present racial failures at MU or any institution should be understood and appreciated, a recriminatory spirit investing disproportionate energy to the awareness, attention and analysis of such features eventually comes at the cost of a more forward-looking and productive discussion. 

I debated on whether or not to attend tonight's discussion. While I'm always interested in assessing the current state of the campus diversity movement, at some point you have to ask yourself whether it's really worth the time to attend a two-hour discussion for which you can readily anticipate in advance what the essential lines of thought will be. Already in the same building for an earlier commitment, I decided to attend, to shape things where I could and take the temperature of the discussion series. 

At some point I entered into a lively exchange with an English professor, with the discussion becoming heated after she repeatedly interrupted as I attempted to pose a question. She objected to a comment I offered in my premise, and I objected to the fact that she refused to yield the floor to allow me to simply complete the question before she responded. After all, we were promised a dialogue, which I like to think means something other than a lecture. 

I sought to ask whether consideration of race in awarding scholarships or hiring faculty might prompt some to wonder, in any given case, whether consideration of race was in fact present in that particular decision. Pretty simple stuff, I thought, and at the minimum, a fair question. One of the worst potential outcomes of preference-based affirmative action programs is a "profound stigmatizing effect" (a phrase I borrow from the last administration's Justice Department) of the class of intended beneficiaries; a broad if generally subtle impression or concern that minority group members might not be completely qualified for the positions they hold. Eventually my question was at least acknowledged, if not taken entirely seriously. 

Beyond the entertainment of a few fireworks and the challenge of serving as the minority opinion spokesperson, I don't know that there was anything particularly revealing, meaningful or productive about tonight's discussion. At least, I don't know that I learned anything new or was able to seriously and positively influence a discussion that was totally loaded from the start. 

The facilitators I think wanted to be fair-minded, but were not nearly as well-versed or aggressive as the faculty and staff member who showed up to unofficially direct the discussion. A few students seemed to be attending as part of a class requirement, and another few seemed to be diversiphiles in training: they could spout the movement's clichés but were relatively unsophisticated in terms of knowledge or rhetoric. (Which is not to say that their opinion or personal experiences are not valid).

Now, I find myself wondering once again whether such exercises are even worth my time. That's merely the myopic formulation of another, more important question: Are diversity discussions beyond redemption? Should skeptics bother to attempt to influence the discussion? Or just pay as little attention as possible and hope that not too many people are listening to the diversity dogmatists? 

Avoidance seems like an easy answer, but sensible society has lost too many battles by shying away from unpleasant political conversations in the past. At the same time, participation does not seem particularly fruitful when confronted with rules of the game that are so stubbornly skewed. I don't yet have a fully satisfying answer, but perhaps the following ideas make a good starting point: 

  • Understand the unique language of the movement. Diversity vernacular tends to be surreptitious and supple, with a heavy emphasis on subjective personal experience, emotion and perception.
  • Bring at least one fellow skeptic to any diversity discussion.
  • Organize your own diversity discussion, designed with better balance for a more full and fair discussion. Invite intellectually honest participants of divergent viewpoints to attend.
  • Educate others - outside formal discussion environments - about the larger goals and philosophical underpinnings of the diversity movement. The lay observer may simply need some friendly confirmation that it is indeed acceptable to think critically about what a confident, politically-correct movement like the Diversity movement hands down as gospel. 

These are just some ideas, but as you now know, I'm (usually) open to a good discussion.

Brian T. Johnson is an undergraduate student of political science at the University of Missouri and publisher of

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