April 14, 2005

A U of C Diversity Center is Crucial

After my last article in the MAROON, I received a number of very supportive e-mails from students. One student asked me to present my argument for why we need a Diversity Center on campus (one of the most important things that a Provost Initiative on Minority Issues could do as it works to make this campus a better place for minority students).

Why do we need a diversity center? We need a diversity center because we need more minority students to come here, and we need a much better system in place to promote active recruitment, retention, and scholastic success of these students. To illuminate what is at stake I present you with two stories.

Story number one. This story features a young black female, imminent graduate of a top-tier liberal arts college in the Midwest (not too far from here). She attended the oldest private boarding school in the country on the east coast. By now she has received eight years of some of the finest education this country can offer. I say this to indicate that she is well-exposed to white people and white mainstream cultural norms. Following admission to a University of Chicago Master's program, she spent last week in the prospective graduate student programs. She relayed this to me: After one presentation, there was an informal reception. She and the six other admitted black students (out of over 160 admitted students overall) walked out of the presentation hall to the reception, saw the sea of white people, looked at each other, and none of them decided to stay. "Ashley, I know white people," she said to me later that day, "but walking in and seeing all of them, I was a little scared. There were only seven of us, and we all looked at each other like ‘Hell no, we ain't staying.' Can you believe that there were seven of us from an applicant pool of over 900?"

The second story took place last weekend also, as our school community was honored to host the Feminism and Hip-Hop conference organized by the Center for the Study of Race Politics and Culture. This three-day conference drew hundreds of black intellectuals from all across the country: scholars, activists, hip-hop practitioners, feminists, and minority radical thinkers were everywhere. At one point I overheard a first-year in the college say "I have never seen so many black people on this campus before!" to which a second-year responded, "and this will never happen again, so appreciate this now." I turned to them and sadly agreed.

Seeing the crowds of minority people flowing in and out of panels and discussions for three days was magical. It was good for my soul. It lifted me up: showed what a beautiful school this could be if there was a healthier, more vibrant community of students of color here. But we are not going to get the chance to build this kind of community if we do not have in place special places—a real physical space—where issues of diversity can be opened safely and addressed.

There is some confusion about what the word diversity means. Diversity does not refer to differences of opinion. A diversity center will not cater to, for example, the population of students who feel underrepresented on campus because they have conservative political beliefs. When we talk about minority students on campus, we are not at all discussing peoples who are merely a numerical minority (although it is clearly the case that minority students are severely underrepresented). When we talk about minority students, we invoke a long and brutal history of subjugation, racist exploitation, and the legacy of educational and economic inequality. None of these historical realities have been completely dismantled or overcome.

By diversity we mean specifically non-white, non-patriarchal narratives and modes of analysis. We desperately need a place on campus where the normative worldview of the white male gets destabilized, where other modes of being in the world can be evoked, affirmed, and explored. We need a place on campus that can function as a home for non-white students as well as a place that can begin to erode some of the deeply rooted institutionalized racism that still exists.