Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Different Kind of Diversity Fear

This week I heard a comment that brought me up short.  

In a discussion of diversity on campus, and the various ways that it can be expressed and supported, a younger professor helped me understand why diversity discussions often stop right where they need to start.  He mentioned that many faculty of his age group get really quiet when diversity comes up because they’re afraid that in saying something inadvertently off-key, they’ll get tagged as anti-diversity.  Rather than take the chance, they simply wait for the subject to change.

I hadn’t put it together quite that way, but it sounded right.  

It’s a tough one to solve, because it’s based on an understandable fear.  I apply the same logic to Middle Eastern politics: since I know I’m no expert, I have no power to change anything, and almost anything I offer will set somebody off, I just don’t swing at that pitch.  Anyone with politically mixed families who gather for holidays knows the drill.  You don’t mix it up with Uncle Larry at Thanksgiving because there’s no “winning” with him.  You just let him air it out until someone changes the subject.  

In grad school, I did my fair share of cultural studies and postmodern theory, both of which addressed race and gender (among other things) in myriad ways.  They “interrogated” all sorts of things, often revealingly.  But I remember getting terribly frustrated at the constant refrains to reflect on your own subject-position; it struck me as leading inevitably to paralysis.  We’re all flawed and we’re all complicit in all sorts of things, just by being here.  Letting a sort of secular Original Sin overwhelm you forecloses any possibility of acting for positive change.  

I had to relearn that lesson when I went from faculty to administration.  It’s easy to criticize almost any decision, policy, or practice, and some folks spend a lot of time doing that.  In the absence of information about constraints, or in the presence of information that wasn’t available at the time, it’s tempting to contrast a flawed reality with an imagined perfection.  But when you actually have to make decisions -- almost always with limited resources, imperfect information, and conflicting goals -- there comes a point when you just have to jump in with both feet.  It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than doing nothing.  Over time, those improvements add up.  Taking the criticism, gleaning what’s useful in it, and moving forward is part of the job.  If you’re allergic to criticism, you won’t get anything done.  

I think that diversity is like that, too.  Although some people like to behave as if perfection were possible, it isn’t.  People have blind spots, hobbyhorses, and emotional histories.  That’s the starting point.  But getting beyond the starting point requires a certain willingness to be publicly awkward.  On a charged topic, that’s a tall order.  I’ve had the no-fun experience, more than once, of realizing in the middle of a public exchange that I was wrong.  It’s humbling and awful.  But it’s also an opportunity for improvement.  And it offers the chance to affirm the value of debate and discussion as tools for clarification, rather than just domination or rationalization.  If we’re going to engage each other meaningfully, that strikes me as a good start.

To my mind, the difference between diversity on campus and Uncle Larry is that we can actually make progress on diversity on campus.  That will involve some awkward moments, some partial improvements, and some human failings.  But it’s worth it.  The point of a community college is to be there for everyone, including those who haven’t been treated fairly.  Some will criticize, with varying degrees of accuracy.  But letting the critics win means letting students down.  This pitch is worth a swing.