This is a guest post by The Witty Mulatto, who blogs at Madness To The Method. She writes of herself, "I'm a piano student and radical left-wing critical race theorist in Our Nation's Capital, which is a good place to be both those things. Also, I'm a drag king. It doesn't get much cooler than that."
What do you think of when you hear the word 'diversity'? Maybe some multi-colored hand-holding? Maybe a bunch of happy children of all races and colors cavorting in rainbow shirts?
I’ll tell you what I think of when I think of diversity: I think of white people. Which is funny, because that’s exactly what you’re not supposed to think of when you think of diversity. But it’s true.
‘Diversity’ should be number one on the list of White People’s Favorite Words. It’s a word that people bandy about when they’ve noticed that their organization is overwhelmingly white, but aren’t really sure why or what to do about it. In the words of a former teacher of mine (one of the few clued-in white people I know), “Diversity basically means ‘let’s talk about black people’.” He means that when people speak of ‘diversity’, they rarely get to the meat of things.
White people’s idea of diversity is skewed. Like the aforementioned kids in rainbow shirts. That’s a freaking melting pot, is what that is. Heads up, gentlemen: only white people talk about a melting pot like it’s a good thing. Though they don’t mean it to be, ‘melting pot’ is synonymous with ‘assimilation’.
In a white organization's eyes, no “diverse” place is complete without a white woman, a Latino, an Indian, an Asian person, a Muslim, some Black folks, a gay man, a person in a wheelchair, and an old person. Preferably in cultural garb where applicable. This “collect them all” mentality actually takes away from diversity. What impact is one Latina gonna have in a roomful of non-Latinos?
Inevitably, this is an unintentional form of an old white standby: divide and conquer. And the end result is that once again, white people get the largest representation. The organization is still overwhelmingly white, even when they are technically outnumbered by POC’s.
Not only that, but white people also think an organization can’t be diverse without white people. I know this because I go to Howard University, the top Black school in the nation. (The only time I hear anybody say ‘diversity’ there is in the context of the white students.) On at least three separate occasions, white acquaintances have asked me if it bothers me to go to a school where there’s so little diversity. I’m like, “Yeah, it would bother me if I actually went to a school like that.” I mean, Howard’s got people from all fifty states and at least a hundred countries. We have a sizable African community and a giant Caribbean community. We have Latino and Asian students. We have more lower-class students than white schools do. But, because most students have black skin, most white people think that cannot possibly be “diverse”.
But the thing that really gets me about 'diversity' is that it’s such a euphemistic word. I hate it when people scoot around race. If you weren’t raised or immersed in American culture and ways, you would have no idea that when people say diversity, they mean race. Yeah, they throw in gender (meaning white women) and orientation (meaning gay men) every so often, but really mostly it’s about race -- and yet the word of choice is diversity, not race, as if race is a dirty word. I am continually and completely amazed by the complicated dances Americans perform around racial issues without even knowing it. ‘Diversity’ is just a header -- there’s a whole list of vocabulary that’s required to perform those dances.
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.
I had this experience when I first decided to get socially/politically active. I knew vaguely what I wanted to see happen, but I didn’t know the first thing about how to go about it. So I joined an organization I had read some about in my historical research: the National Organization for Women (NOW). (I didn’t know that they were once anti-dyke under Betty Friedan.)
NOW was thrilled, absolutely thrilled to have me. For a couple of months during my freshman year I went around campaigning for abortion rights. I carried signs. I even got to meet Hillary Clinton. (It was back when I still considered myself a Democrat, so I was elated.)
But something creeped me out. I knew it had something to do with the lack of POC’s, but that wasn’t all of it. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. Now, as the radical analyst that I like to be, I can jam my finger straight into its fleshy white stomach: NOW only wants people of color on their terms. Sure, they wanna hear what we have to say, but when it comes to making policy, you better be on board with them. They used to ask me, you know, “Why aren’t other Howard students interested in NOW?”
Because NOW doesn’t represent us. White organizations don’t want to represent people of color; they just want to include them.
So in a way, ‘diversity’, like ‘melting pot’, is just another word for ‘assimilation’.
Whenever somebody says that word, you can bet white people are calling the shots.