Diversity issues still ill-defined at University

by By Kenna-Camara

As a student of elementary education, diversity and multiculturalism come up quite often in my studies. These terms have been bandied about by individuals trying to prove how politically correct or tolerant they are. The problem is, we keep using these terms without thinking critically about their meanings.
Literally, multiculturalism means many cultures. As of late, it has come to define a certain manner of interaction among many cultures. Multiculturalism now means equality in representation and consideration for many cultural groups. It means that not only diversity, but pluralism is desired. (Diversity means different, varied, or dissimilar, nothing more.)
In a pluralistic society, there is no dominant culture. Pluralism exists when the contributions and needs of each culture are considered and valued in decision making. Each culture has access to power and resources, education and health care. These values are propagated through the educational system, as well as in the homes of each family. In a pluralistic society there is more than variety: There is equity.
It seems that the University’s emphasis on “diversity” is misguided. We hear so much about recruiting, retaining and raising the number of “racial minorities” in the student and faculty population. While increasing numbers will raise the amount of diversity on campus, it does little to address the issue of multiculturalism. The increased presence of racial minorities does not ensure an environment that is conducive to their success and comfort.
In the Diversity Strategic Area of U2000, the University states that it wants to “increase the presence and participation of racial minorities and women in areas where they are underrepresented.” It then goes on to outline six measures that will be taken to achieve this goal. One of these measures addresses the need to do something about the climate that the University has created for these underrepresented groups. But it is only when this climate changes that underrepresented groups will begin to represent themselves.
Let me explain.
We live in a diverse society where there is one dominant group and many “minority” groups. The physical embodiment of the dominant group are middle-class, educated, white males. The interests of this dominant group are presented as if they were public interests. This happens because the dominant group has a monopoly on power, influence and education in the society. The problems arise when the minority groups might want to decide who their own heroes are, what is bad and good and what should be forgotten. The minority groups might not want to be called by a blanket term. They might want a shot at the privilege of the dominant culture and want respect and fair treatment.
In order for this to happen, the dominant/minority paradigm must be shattered. It is not a matter of the dominant culture granting wishes. It is a matter of the dominant culture relinquishing that dominant status and realizing that it should not hold the monopoly on values. It is not a matter of the oppressed groups getting revenge. It is a matter of these groups throwing off the cloak of repression and ceasing to internalize the interests of the dominant culture as their own. Then, and only then, will the diverse groups be able to work together at multiculturalism.
As it stands, the University is putting itself in the position of the dominant wish-granter. “We will actively recruit you!” they cry. “We will give you financial aid! We will improve your graduation rates! We will help you find jobs!” The University makes promise after promise about getting us in and getting us out, but they do little to address the time we spend here.
However, I cannot deny that the U2000 Strategic Area on Diversity has some merit. This merit lies not in the content of the document, but in the existence of such a document. It means someone is thinking out there.
Multiculturalism is not a department. It is not one course in the University’s sequence. Multiculturalism is a state; you’re either in it or you’re not. You either respect people’s cultures or you don’t. The University is too wishy-washy about such things. For example, the K-12 initiative supports working with students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds to help them prepare for college. Then we have to fight for General College and debate about raising entrance standards. The University also talks about recruiting effective teachers that “reflect the diversity of our society,” but because I do not major in Afro-American studies, I have never taken a class from a teacher, professor or teaching assistant of color.
At this time, the University is as diverse as we (students of color and other underrepresented groups) make it. For instance, it wasn’t until I held positions in the Africana Student Cultural Center and visited its lounge that I connected with my brothers and sisters. I would have remained isolated if I waited for the “dominant wish-granter” to make the campus climate better for me.
The University is as diverse as we choose it to be, but multiculturalism can exist only when the dominant culture releases its hold on privilege. When this culture begins to see itself simply and humbly, as just one of the diverse cultures that make up society, then we can sit down at the table and talk about how to create a better climate for everyone.

Kenna-Camara Refined Earth is a senior majoring in elementary education. She is also the chairwoman of the Africana Student Cultural Center.