What if we challenged the university’s notion of “diversity” in a meaningful way?
This gets complicated, so bear with me here. As things stand now, the university periodically hosts a “Diverse People from International Places”-type event. At these events, people from other countries typically present dances, clothing and food from their respective countries.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing. It’s fine to sample the clothing, food and cultural customs from other nations. But that’s not really the point of diversity, in my opinion.
To me, diversity is about understanding people whose points of view and life experiences are different and varied, so that we might better understand each other and work together. And our points of view and life experiences are not shaped merely by food, clothing, dances and music.
In other words, I would argue that the university is taking the easy road to diversity. I think it is practicing tokenism. Tokenism is…
a policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority group, usually creating a false appearance of inclusive practices, intentional or not. … Classically, token characters have some reduced capacity compared to the other characters and may have bland or inoffensive personalities so as to not be accused of stereotyping negative traits. Instead, their difference may be overemphasized or made “exotic” and glamorous. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this concise definition.)
I think “international students” tend to be lumped into a category that casts them as non-threatening, good-food-eating, colorful-dressing, exotics whose cultures are “fascinating” and “diverse.”
In fact, the students at ISU who come from other countries are often very different from one another, and sometimes NOT very different from American students, depending on how difference is measured. In other words, class, ethnicity, race, language, religion are all factors in making us feel connected to or distinct from other people.
So, let’s say the situation was reversed and ISU students went to school in Egypt, for example. Imagine what an “International Week” celebration might be like. Would we lump “American” students together into one culture — putting together a black Katrina survivor’s cultural experience with a suburban Chicago PIKE fraternity member’s experience, with a farm boy from Cloverdale who commutes to campus? What is lost by lumping these students together?
The same could be said by grouping Korean students, or worse, “Asian” students. Does an upper-caste Hindi Indian woman really share a similar cultural experience with a working class Buddhist Taiwanese man?
So, what would an alternative to this type of event be? Well, our options are complex.
One approach would be to use these “diversity” events to actually go beyond the obvious and tell interesting stories about cultural difference. We could focus on just a few students whose experiences here tell us something about their culture and our own dominant U.S.-ISU culture.
What kinds of American cultural experiences surprised these students? What kinds of cultural/political/religious conflicts or connections exist among students from the same country? You can imagine a white rural Indiana Republican student having some cultural friction with a black South Side Chicago liberal student. The same kinds of conflicts exist among residents of other nations.
The goal here is not to spark conflict, but rather to better understand the challenges and worldviews of the people on our campus. Only then can we host forums and events that focus on bridging understanding and creating healthy dialogue within our campus community.
How does the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy sit with students from different parts of the world? Some are very receptive to a more diplomatic approach, while others have benefited from the Bush administration approach.
How do students from the Middle East feel on our campus, where some students are Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans? How does technology impact how students from other countries stay connected to their homelands? How do they connect with their fellow countrymen here at ISU?
What kinds of jobs will various students take back in their home countries after they graduate ISU? Some will take very high-paying jobs set up by their elite families. Others will work with the poor in order to develop struggling economies back home.
These are all ways at getting at the lived experiences of these students, not merely focusing on their nation’s traditional food and clothing.
I realize this is a complex issue that I can’t adequately address in a blog post. But let’s discuss the alternatives to covering the “token diversity event” so that we can write stories that matter to our students. And so that we can foster good discussion and better understanding among our readers.
As always, please comment!