I don’t know how this started or how it expanded, but I am happy that the ongoing dialogue around diversity has resurged on our campus.
There are some people who are tired of hearing words like “privilege”, “groups”, and “segregation.” And they’re tired for different reasons. Some believe we should try to be colorblind and stop talking about race altogether. Others don’t know what good talking will do. A lot of people just haven’t thought about the issue as deeply as some of the commentary in The Bullsheet.
The communication department hosted a dialogue about the rhetoric surrounding diversity on campus last Thursday during common hour.
There were a lot of good things about the discussion: a great mixture of professors and students, thoughtful analysis, honest experiences, and a real sense of acknowledgement that something just isn’t quite right. But there were some pieces missing.
Not a single white male student was present, which was disappointing, because contrary to popular belief, they are diversity as well.
And the group (something I pointed out in my own Bullsheet rant), like many others of its kind, was a self-selected group of people who decided that diversity was an important enough topic to be present.
What I’ve noticed about our campus is that, in general, our student body hasn’t really challenged itself to think critically about diversity issues.
For example, minorities aren’t sitting together at the lunch table because they are automatically drawn to each other. It’s because this country has more than four centuries of structural racial oppression that defined what it meant to be white and to be non-white and separated on that basis.
It’s because this school didn’t have a critical mass of students of color until the student body decided to fight for it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It’s also disappointing how many of us don’t understand the concept of white privilege and, even more horrifyingly, might deny it’s existence. If you want to visualize white privilege at Denison, take a moment and think about your peers. Who comes from what neighborhoods? Who got an internship in part due to family connections? Who has social influence? Now, what color are they?
It’s an uncomfortable exercise, but it plays into how we interact with one another in our four years here. As Stephanie Arhin ‘14, a communication major from Fayetville, North Carolina put it, “There’s a common thing of feeling like your Denison experience is not my Denison experience” and that creates a disconnect amongst students of different backgrounds.
So, what can we do?
First, we have to acknowledge, critique, and celebrate Denison’s history in terms of diversity. Do we know what the Black Demands of 1969 are? Or the noose incident in 2007? The reasons behind having the power and justice general education requirement?
Second, we have to be intentional in how we sell Denison to prospective students and how we introduce it to incoming freshman classes. A parent of a prospective student once asked me about diversity at Denison. A woman of color who had gone to a predominately white institution herself, she asked me if there was segregation.
I ended up giving her a watered down, overly optimistic answer, and I still wonder whether or not that was the right decision.
In the planning of our first-year orientation, we have to be committed to including a session about diversity, and make it clear to freshmen that the college not only values diversity, that we expect it.
And lastly, we have to give ourselves a break. A third of the class of 2017 is either non-white or non-American. That is nothing short of exceptional given that we’re a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere. But it’s not about the number. The concern is whether or not interaction is happening, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to on a large scale.
What we can’t do is force people. We can make it mandatory to take a certain class or participate in a workshop of some kind, but we can not force people to embrace diversity. It’s not fair or productive.
We have to want it. Students, staff, faculty, and the administration all have to want it, and we have to make it a priority that diversity is a part of every Denisonian’s experience.