To renew conversation on ongoing themes in higher education, NAS occasionally re-posts one or two of the best and most popular articles from the same month a year ago. This article, which comments on a story of campus "diversity" backfiring on one of its devotees, is especially relevant today in light of the Brooklyn College faculty member who recently tried to urge her colleagues to "correct the lily-white imbalances" on search committees.
This article was originally posted here.
Advocates of affirmative action in college admissions have long argued that students benefit from racial diversity in the classroom. The idea was the rationale behind the Supreme Court’s decision in University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978) that “achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances,” and it continues to justify the proliferation of racial preferences in higher education. NAS President Peter Wood critiques this argument in his book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. In his chapter “Bakke and Beyond,” he writes:
The Bakke decision’s even larger legacy was to give scope, legitimacy and force to a new way of thinking about social diversity, which would prove to have cultural applications far beyond college admissions and even race.
Indeed, in the years since Bakke,“diversity” has taken on expansive meaning, and its cultural applications have grown complicated in the hands of politically correct leaders. Diversity is no longer limited to “What color is your skin?” Now the question is, “What is your story of oppression?” Almost any adjective can be tacked on to diversity: gender expression, body size, veteran status. Virginia Tech now defines the term diversity as:
acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege.
“Inequality, hierarchy, and privilege”? Diversity-lovers (we call them diversiphiles) who evoke “systems of power” don’t celebrate diversity but resent it and use it to polarize people. In their view, people of a certain sexuality, a certain income, and/or a certain race are automatically bad guys, powerful oppressors—while people who have certain other characteristics are automatically good guys, victims. This is the diversity doctrine that America has bought into and that has permeated higher education.
But most college students these days are comfortable with, and often enthusiastic about the ideological scheme of diversity. They’ve been fed the idea since kindergarten, and many consider their college years the culmination of their diversity experience. One such student was Melissa Hart, now an author and adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon (not to be confused with Melissa Joan Hart, famous for her role in the TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch). Hart writes in “Disappearing Into Diversity” in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how her ardor for diversity came back to bite her when she enrolled at UC-Santa Cruz as a white woman.
Hart was placed in an almost-all-white college of business and economics and experienced early the results of higher education’s overcompensating emphasis on race. That emphasis has resulted in segregated orientation sessions, graduation ceremonies, scholarships, student groups, and academic programs. Rather than introducing students to others who are different from them, “celebrating diversity” has led administrators to divide students into identity groups and encourage them to indulge self-pity and bitterness.
Finding herself classified, Hart longed to bridge the separation between herself and the minority students on campus:
I walked across campus under towering redwoods, past groups of chummy Latino, Asian, and African-American students. I'd grown up in multicultural Los Angeles with friends from many parts of the world. These were the kind of people with whom I'd hoped to fraternize in college. But how could I gain entrance into their lives?
She made an effort to gain entrance:
In my creative-writing class, I befriended a dreadlocked freshman from Porter. Jason captivated our attention with his narratives about growing up black in San Francisco in the 1970s.
But she soon noticed that her dreadlocked friend and other minorities got all the brownie points in class:
I saw that the Vietnamese students' stories of emigrating to the United States, and the African students' tales of colorful culture back home, caused our professor to sit up straight and stroke his goatee with pleasure, while my own stories of innocent girls enlightened by wise transients on the Mall in downtown Santa Cruz caused him to invoke lethal adjectives such as "sentimental" and "pathetic." Being white and straight, I felt doubly cursed with a dearth of fascinating material. What story could I tell to prove my worth?
“What story could I tell to prove my worth?” The bewildered question captures the dark side of the diversity doctrine. Without a story of oppression, the doctrine tells us, you are essentially worthless.
Melissa Hart then tells about going with her dark-skinned Portuguese roommate to audition for a musical-performance class: “Anna sang a comic piece from Fiddler on the Roof, while I performed a thin rendition of Fantine's ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables. I felt dismayed but not surprised the next day when Professor Lehrer posted the class list with Anna's name at the top and mine altogether absent.” After a hint from her roommate, she concluded that she should have sung something less “white.” A semester went by and she “continued to lose parts to students with just a little more talent and, frequently, a little more pigmentation in their skin.”
At this point in Hart’s article, it seems as if she was starting to get it, starting to realize that her dreams of multicultural mingling weren’t coming true—and that it was the fault of multiculturalism itself. Yet she didn’t get it. Instead, she bought into the doctrine even further, believing that she was indeed ordinary and invisible. She switched majors a second time (to Psychology) and was selected for a seminar in “The Life Cycle: Psychology and Philosophy of Meaning.” She was surprised to find that all but one of her classmates were white:
I wondered how, on a campus committed to cultural diversity, Professor Aronson's self-described random selection had generated such a group. Were we part of a social-psychology experiment studying the invisibility of run-of-the-mill white students on campus?
Hart eventually transferred to UC-Santa Barbara where she instantly became a standout. Her deeply-ingrained enthusiasm for identity issues set her apart from the other students and she no longer felt left behind. She used her mother’s homosexuality as a springboard:
Informed by my brief stint at UC-Santa Cruz, I signed up for a course on Gertrude Stein and proudly outed my mother in class. Where once I had disappeared into diversity, now the lack of it helped me find my voice.
Diversity, you see, only works in your favor when you are the minority. Hart already had a story she could tell to prove her worth. She didn’t share it at UC-Santa Cruz but she did this year in her memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (2009). The online synopsis sums it up:
Set in 1970s Southern California, Gringa is the story of a young girl conflicted by two extremes. On the one hand there’s life with her mother, who leaves her father to begin a lesbian relationship, taking Hart and her two siblings along. Hart tells of her mom’s new life in a Hispanic neighborhood of Oxnard, California, and how these new surroundings begin to positively shape Hart herself. At the opposite extreme is her father’s white-bread well-to-do security, which is predictable and stable and boring.
It’s interesting that Hart would characterize her “white-bread” father as predictable and boring in her book, while in her article she recounts crying out against being stereotyped as a “run-of-the-mill white student.” She dismisses her father the same way she was dismissed. Even her title, Gringa, turns a derogatory epithet toward herself. Hart looks for redemption (“What story could I tell to prove my worth?”) and tries to see herself through the eyes of diversity, but her hopeful efforts and self-put-downs only confirm her status as a groupie unknown to the band.
Hart knew that at UC-Santa Cruz something was keeping her from developing close relationships with people who didn’t share her skin color. Something was keeping her stories outside the scope of her creative-writing professor’s approval. There was a wall of separation that excluded her, and her “privilege” couldn’t help her get past it. The very god she worshipped was her enemy.
The tragedy here is not so much that Hart remained blind to the ugly truth about the diversity god but that she represents just one out of millions of people to whom the dark deity has been unkind. And she even believes in diversity – what about those who choose not to worship at its altar?
Hart’s article in the Chronicle provides a brief moment of truth, a rare glimpse at how the diversity movement punishes even its supporters. When will Americans open their eyes to the marginalization and division it inflicts? In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Justice O’Connor declared, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” But 2028 will not be soon enough.