“Diversity” In White Institutions

August 8, 2009

Jaded Hippy linked to a fascinating guest post at Stuff White People Do by The Witty Mulatto, who blogs at Madness to the Method, concerning the meaning of the term “diversity” as employed by members of white institutions, such as the overwhelmingly vast majority of universities. The whole thing is well worth reading, but I just want to quote one part:

White organizations everywhere create entire commissions and councils surrounding diversity. Their mission statements usually say things like, “We believe the University environment is greatly enriched by the presence of people with diverse backgrounds and cultural perspectives.” They have a lot of pretty words. But what they really mean is, “How can we reach out to people of color and make them want to join our organization?”

The question that logically comes next but is rarely asked is, “Why would people of color WANT to join our organization?”

If you asked THAT question, things would get interesting.

As a member of a white organization, I can say from personal experience that this is, indeed, exactly what “diversity” ends up meaning for us, and how we strategize about it.

I have participated in many discussions concerning “How can we reach out to people of color and make them want to join our organization?” as well as “What can we do to improve the prospects of people of color succeeding within our organization?” I have never had a single discussion concerning “Why would people of color WANT to join our organization?”

21 Responses to ““Diversity” In White Institutions”

  1. Toaster Says:

    But that’s tacitly implied. If you’re asking “How can we reach out…?”, then you’ve already assumed that your outreach is a noble thing that those whom you’re reaching out to will appreciate and want. It’s the generalized assumption: We are Teh Awesome, so of course they want some of our Awesomeness.

  2. aurora Says:

    “Why would people of color WANT to join our organization?”

    If they aren’t the only ones I suppose. If there are too few people of color it indicates that those who join, leave for one reason or other. Or it just may be one of those white-boy towns in which case there’s no place interesting to live.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up CPP. The post and the blog rocked.

  4. Gingerale Says:

    CPP, you ask an excellent question.

  5. I like the question, though I’m not sure how an institution would go about answering it or improving the answers. It’s not as though “people of color” have one monolithic set of reasons for wanting to be at a given place. And as aurora alludes to, to the extent that there is a monolithic reason (diverse surroundings), there is very little a department can do to pump up the diversity of a white-bread town. (The larger institution could perhaps work on recruiting more diverse restaurants etc., but the individual department doesn’t have any sort of power there.)

    And if the other selling point is, Plenty of happy minorities in our department, it’s a bit of a catch-22 as recruitment goes, what?

  6. Larry H. Says:

    I’m not at all impressed by the original article. POCs have a lot of legitimate grievances, no doubt. But the original article’s vague but smug and sanctimonious complaints seem useless.

    WTF is a “white” organization? Especially an organization that’s “white” despite having a numerical minority of POC’s.

    WTF is wrong with diversity? IIRC, you teach at a fucking medical school; presumably a POC would be interested in your organization because — let me apply my sophisticated analytic skills to the issue — he or she wants to fucking teach people to be physicians. You’re not there to solve once and for all the questions of race, gender and sexuality in Western Civilization.

    Presumably there are issues specific to various races, genders and sexualities that deserve to be taught at a medical school. But how hard is this to figure out? I don’t know, maybe it is hard; I’ve pretty much spent my whole life staying as far away as possible from large, bureaucratic institutions.

    What burns my shorts about the original article is the tone that white folk just don’t “get it”, we just can’t get it, and we can’t get it because we’re white. Maybe that’s true, but so what? If I can’t get it, I can’t get it, and that means I’m just not going to worry about it; it’s not my problem. If that’s what the author wants, I’m happy to oblige.

    On the other hand, if there’s something I can do to help, I’m also happy to oblige. But it has to be something I can actually do, something reasonably specific; I don’t see how walking around feeling guilty or inferior is going to help.

    This is the exact same issue that put me on Arthur Silber’s shit list a couple of years ago. One reason I quit writing is that I’m fucking sick and tired of being branded a racist, a sexist, a revisionist, a heretic or an asshole because I won’t swallow a lot of bullshit with a smile and ask for more.

  7. bikemonkey Says:

    actually I’ve served on multiple diversity type committees at multiple stages of edumacation and this question more/less comes up with regularity. ‘course it is inevitably a person of color bringing it up…

  8. Bike–what’re the answers?

  9. bikemonkey Says:

    If good answers existed then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Plenty of people have opinions, mostly rooted in their particular situations and biases, but nobody has any special insight I’ve seen…

  10. yolio Says:

    POC want to join you institution for the most of the same reasons as anyone: a job, and opportunity to pursue their research and a position of prestige and influence. However, being a minority in a majority white institution is often an enormously challenging and frustrating experience, above and beyond the usual challenges of the job. So, the pro’s have to outweigh the con’s—and this usually boils down to how badly the POC wants those pro’s. Sometimes institutions do manage to increase the pro’s by essentially throwing a lot of money at the diversity thing. But, it is rare for a white majority institution to be effective at lowering the cons, largely because they don’t seem to understand the cons very clearly.

  11. bikemonkey Says:

    “Sometimes institutions do manage to increase the pro’s by essentially throwing a lot of money at the diversity thing.”


    Nobody in academia throws “a lot of money”. Not at undergrads, not at graduate students, not at profs. Financial aid for students is fungible and in any case diversity initiatives often are funded somewhat externally (to the dept, to the Uni, to the State, etc). Grad student principle is universally “the more the better”. Opening up new job lines is not throwing a lot of money, they are getting a prof for their trouble and the premise here is that they are getting a prof they want and need.

    “Throwing money” …

  12. yolio Says:

    Let me qualify the “throw money” thing, because I was read slightly differently than I intended. First of all, maybe “a lot” is overstating the case, but there do exist pots of money for fellowships for minority undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral scientists. I know about these pots of money because I have personally received several of them. I can attest to the fact that they are in some cases generous fellowships and they represent a pool of money not available to the mainstream. This does not necessarily mean that they are non-competitive. There are generally enough talented minority students competing for said fellowship so that weak candidates don’t have a chance at receiving them.

    I call the strategy behind these fellowships “throwing money” at the problem in the sense that there is rarely (never?) any accompanying resources to help these students cope with the situation of being a minority in a majority institution: peer groups, skill building sessions, minority mentors, or even a decent reading list. My sense is that the folks who designed these programs have money to increase minority participation in their institution but don’t really know how to go about doing so. Therefore, they just give the money to the student and hope for the best. I call this throwing money at the problem.

    Now, in some cases (including my own), these minority students have borne a greater financial burden for their education than the average student. The average minority student graduates with substantially more student debt that the average overall student. In these cases, throwing money at them might be a perfectly on-point way of addressing their historical disadvantages.

  13. Isabel Says:

    Whites like me, from working class and lower-middle class, non-professional backgrounds (in other words the majority of whites in this country) are extremely underrepresented at my university- I may be the only example in my department. But there was not one fellowship available for me, nor peer groups or mentors, but scads of fellowships for POC.

    It’s also interesting to note, especially to the extent that it is not talked about in these discussions, that undergrads at this “white” institution are now predominately Asian, especially east Asian, but South Asian also. In the pre-med classes I TA whites and blacks are both in the minority. Why do some groups have more difficulty? Why are Asians and Jews so successful?

    After working with disadvantaged young children of all backgrounds for years I have come to the conclusion that cultural forces are very strong and am losing hope that a brief interference can make a substantial difference…I feel frustrated when my brightest black students (in the early grades) come to school tired, talking about violent movies, their huge DVD collections, their boyfriends/girlfriends (in 4th grade?) or miss school altogether, whereas the poorest immigrant Asian students are always prepared for class. And I hear it only gets more intense as they get older, culminating in the enrollment 4X their representation in the population at the top universities.

    In other words do-gooding is helpful, but the community is key. If scholarship is not prized, if low-cost community resources like farmers markets and educational activities like zoos, parks, and aquariums, free swim lessons, even watching nature shows on PBS are all looked at dismissively as “white” things to do, if kids don’t have a regular bed-time and breakfast and someone to check if they’ve done their homework, etc the children will suffer.

    If this sounds racist to my detractors, sorry. But I think always blaming the kids, their poverty or supposed alienation in an environment where they are a minority can be as racist/condescending as assuming different levels of IQ for each heritage.

  14. Isabel Says:

    Oops in the first paragraph, I mean representation of GRADUATE students in my dept. – undergrad lower-class white representation may be higher, but the stats available do not do a class breakdown by race.

  15. Isabel Says:

    Sorry for multiple posts -Thinking about it, I should add that a similar anti-intellectualism and avoidance of ‘snooty’ activities may be holding back lower class whites. As usual class factors into things more than is admitted. Although I did not grow up in or ever work in a traditionally working class white area, that is the stereotype, and I suspect there is a lot of truth to it. I’m reminded of a Rosanne rerun I saw recently where the family was taking part in a Nielsen TV survey, and trying to prove that people in lower-class neighborhoods watched PBS etc but nearly dying of boredom – they couldn’t wait to get back to their regular programming. Maybe ‘newcomers’ have a psychological advantage? My main point is I think diversity as a goal is great, and special programs are great, but I strongly suspect they are very limited approaches in the long run.

  16. BikeMonkey Says:

    It isn’t as much fun when you fill the whole BINGO card in one post Isabel…

  17. Samia Says:

    This post and the ensuing comments make me want a nap. LOL @ filling-the-bingo-card remark…

  18. Isabel Says:

    WTF is that bingo card remark supposed to mean anyway?

    Something incredibly snarky and cliched no doubt.

    I never did play a lot of bingo.

    How about an intelligent contribution to the discussion instead of putting people down?

    Samia, it was interesting to learn you are from a privileged background. Servants???? No one in MY evil white family ever dreamed of having servants. Well, maybe they did fantasize about it from time to time, after a hard day of working for other people….Who wouldn’t?

    Are you sure you’re not projecting your own guilt onto the evil white race? How clean you must feel now that you are a down-trodden ‘person of color’ in the big ol’ US of A! And how superior your mother’s family must have felt to the servants waiting on them hand and foot. So tell me – what color were the servants? Were they darker skinned? Why were they servants, when your family HAD servants? No wonder you wanted to stay focused on the ‘Western world’s’ flaws. Ah well, I’m sure it’s a ‘cultural’ thing that I just don’t get. Please teach me more about my white privilege!

    BTW I enjoyed reading all the bitchy comments about me on your blog, while you were pretending to be ‘attempting to communicate’ with me elsewhere, saying all those nice PC things. How big of you to make such an effort, while you were filled with such disgust inside. I don’t think you are a two-faced bitch at all, in fact I feel really flattered.

    There are SO many interesting conversations we COULD be having! Alas, time to get back to the anti-racist blame game.

  19. G.D. Says:

    this is sad.

  20. profacero Says:

    Bingo – It’s the white liberal bingo card. http://i-dreamed-i-was.livejournal.com/6105.html

    Are you an elementary school teacher or a TA, Isabel, or a former elementary school teacher now turned TA, or both at once…?

  21. Asada Says:

    This is why I cant stand conferences focuses on “high need youth”. It’s a huge patronizing session!

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