by Chanelle Adams
Diversity – A buzzword that means PoC will be put on display to give the illusion of racial progress; An empty promise; Mostly benefits whites.
The promise of racial diversity has fallen short.
We are facing the unsettling truth that predominantly white colleges and universities care more about donors, the comfort of white students and overall public perception than they care about the concerns of students of color.
Back in November, Johnathan Butler, a Black graduate student went on a hunger strike demanding that the University of Missouri address its racism, including the removal of Mizzou’s President Wolfe. It was only after the football team threatened to stop playing that Wolfe stepped down. It was the risk of losing university funds, not losing the life of a Black student, that ultimately caused the administration to take action.
Events at Mizzou and Yale have brought it to international attention that colleges across the U.S. have failed Black students and non-Black students of color. #BlackOnCampus and student movements at large are revealing the lack of commitment from PWIs (predominantly white institutions) to combat racial oppression.
As I watch universities across the country draft diversity plans in response to their students of color, I am distrustful. Colleges are setting goals to hire more faculty of color without plans for how they will retain them. Studies have shown that Black women scholars at PWIs die at earlier ages than their colleagues, and the numbers are worse for queer and trans women.
Yes, many amazing QTPOC scholars have survived the hostile environment of academia, but they are the exception, not the norm. They’re celebrated as unique achievements, milestones of diversity efforts. They are made out to be examples of the American dream, perpetuating the bootstrap myth that holds so many of us down—the idea that with a little hard-work and self-determination anyone can succeed. Instead of making spectacles of those of us who survive these institutions, I want to look at why there are so few of us that we make monuments of those who manage to thrive in the first place.
Maybe it’s no surprise that instead of being utopias for racial tolerance and mutual understanding, college campuses are rampant with white hostility and skepticism towards students of color. After all, the groundwork for the very existence of PWIs is anti-Black racism, enslavement, and the violent colonization of Native lands and people.
It’s clear that rather than offering reparations, many PWIs understand diversity as a simple formula of meeting quotas, putting brown faces on brochures, and occasionally using the word ‘intersectional.’ Instead of offering a system of mobility for those who have been historically marginalized and excluded, PWIs use the concept of ‘diversity’ to give the illusion that they are progressive.
What does it mean for us to occupy predominantly-white spaces that were never built to hold us? Places built on our backs but never structured to support us?
When I first got to college, I realized the harsh reality of this false ‘diversity’ advertising. It’s a hollow tactic that takes the place of the real, messy work of enacting structural change. ‘Diversity’ problems aren’t fixed once people enter places they’ve been excluded from. There needs to be support and tools to thrive, such as anti-oppressive frameworks in all disciplines and faculty being held accountable for harm.
I’ve spent a lifetime navigating the ‘diversity’ question. Growing up Black in a white household and attending school in majority white classrooms, means I know what ‘diversity’ feels like and who it benefits. Instead of centering people of color, ‘diversity’ means centering white people. It means reassuring white parents that their children will receive access to ‘culture.’ It means when my white peers are racist, I’m expected to see it as a teaching moment for them. Diversity means that my presence is repeatedly turned into a learning tool for my white peers.
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I’ve been tokenized more often than not under the language of ‘inclusion.’ As a child, my school schedule was always shifted around because they wanted to separate me from other students of color, serving to distribute ‘diversity’ across as many classrooms as possible.
This ‘just add and stir’ model for instant-diversity is flawed. It expects that once you add people of color, their flavor will dissolve into the bland white soup. But diversity does not work by some divine property of osmosis. And it certainly does not work when the effort comes from only one direction.
People don’t automatically stop upholding racism once a few PoC are added to the mix. In fact, forcibly including PoC in predominantly white spaces is a guaranteed breeding pool for racism.
Diversity efforts aren’t wrong, but the ways that it is enforced often do harm that could be mitigated. Frequently, diversity means placing people of color in hostile, white environments, surrounded by people who are not equipped to have conversations about difference.
I wonder if believing that PWIs have the capacity to offer us safety is a fantasy. I don’t want to be included in a system that isn’t open to transformation. I don’t want to be gracious toward a place that doesn’t have any real commitment to my comfort, or offer any resources for me to stay. I refuse to ‘trust-fall’ for an institution that isn’t going to catch me.
I want to stop hoping the that PWI classrooms that were built on our backs will ever be decolonized. I want to think about how, instead, we can use the resources of PWIs to nourish our own structures and systems — ones that are always open to new ideas, but firmly rooted in anti-racism, respect for humanity, humility, and accountability.
I want a diversity that does more than change the faces that surround us from white to Brown and Black, but also demands issues that affect our communities are brought to the forefront.
Black and Brown students are already doing this work by not only demanding for their own sense of security but also for our communities at large. We cannot ignore that PWIs exploit communities of color more broadly by investing in prison phone companies and fossil fuels. PWIs gentrify neighborhoods in cities they inhabit, displacing our families and taking over our neighborhoods.
‘Diversity’(as it stands) doesn’t solve the problems of white flight from public schools, it cannot fully account for reparations or offer solutions to police brutality, detention centers and exploitation of labor. Our call for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ at PWIs must keep reaching beyond representation and visibility on the college campus and act in solidarity with the needs of our communities.
Chanelle Adams (Managing Editor at BGD) is available for hire in diversity consulting for $1,000/minute. You will most likely find Chanelle speaking frankly to unsuspecting strangers about the core issues. You can follow Chanelle at @nellienooks.
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