January 14, 2003

Diversity oversimplified

When George III sank into madness, he was sent to the Gardens at Kew to recover. Indeed, Kew was the 18th century's version of EPCOT Center--it was multi-cultural. There was a Chinese pagoda, a Dutch windmill, a Greek temple, etc. It was the world on parade--eye candy!

Who am I? I'm an avid cross-country skier and hiker. I watch way too much college football. I find women with Southern accents irresistible. I love the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the rocky shores of Maine. I love Indian food, German cars, and English clothing. I lean towards Conservatism and the Republican platform, but usually vote for independent candidates. Oh yeah, ethnically, I'm East Asian.

When I was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, President John McCardell gave a speech that contained references to both geology and institutional diversity. He noted that several years ago, he saw a T-shirt with the words: "Reunite Gondwanaland." Gondwanaland was a gigantic prehistoric land mass comprised of several of the present-day continents. He argued that, in a sense, the "reunion of Gondwanaland" is the imperative of academic institutions. Indeed, schools should seek to unite the world by drawing together individuals of various backgrounds.

McCardell is not alone in his desire for diversity. Just look at President Bush's Cabinet, the cast of any after-school special, or a United Colors of Benetton advertisement on the side of a bus. Invariably, there is a Far-East Asian, a black, a Latino, a Middle-Eastern Asian, and a Caucasian. We love diversity.

But I find it despicable that almost all people--academic institutions, the Bush Cabinet, television shows, and Benetton--define diversity in terms of race. I must utter a most taboo question: Why is Diversity in general considered the same as racial diversity?

I can think of two reasons why people might make this simplification. First, laziness. Black or white is easier to determine than Mormon or Quaker, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Race is convenient and visible. Secondly, there is acculturation. Most people born since the Civil Rights movement have been trained to celebrate diversity; and to tolerate, accept, and understand other people and different cultures.

But this is precisely the problem: in order to appreciate multi-culturalism, one must necessarily be able to distinguish the self from the other. "I like Chinese New Year; that's when those people do that." "I like soul-food; those people cook that stuff deliciously." "I like pizza; no wonder Mafioso are so fat." Just like George III, we live in a world of self and other, soup and spice, I and you, standard and exotic, audience and eye-candy. By necessity, a multi-cultural world is very convenient--differences are pointed out and used to define the individual. Indeed, it is world in which individuals are neatly organized according to superficial categories, into pagodas, windmills, and temples.

I find such a world suffocating. I find that it mitigates my individuality, and that it undermines everything that I find important about me (my fondness for skiing, Southern belles, Vermont, etc.). I find that it uses my Asian-ness to define my entire being. As claimed earlier, I find it despicable.