Open University

Diversity In The Academy


By John McWhorter

Since the Supreme Court last week decided against Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky's policies of assuring a certain degree of racial diversity in public schools, we have heard much about the undoing of Brown v. Board.

However, I have a hard time mourning the decision, though the brute notion that we must ignore race to get beyond it is, surely, simplistic.

Preliminarily, I think of the plethora of schools nationwide where all the students are brown and yet excellence is a norm. I think of the fact that to the extent that black teens tar excelling in school as "acting white," it tends to be when they go to school with white people, as scholarly studies have shown.

Yet I openly admit that my discomfort with racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences in education is also based in part on gut impressions--based on my own experiences in academia over, now, almost 20 years. Too often, commitment to "diversity" has nothing to do with recognizing the humanity and individuality of the persons in question.

As it happens, it was ten years ago this week that I had one such experience. Every two summers, linguists have a kind of summer camp, the Linguistics of America Institute, where linguists from around the world give mini-courses for students on a college campus. I was invited to teach at the one in 1997.

There was a biweekly "diversity" meeting, where issues related to same were supposed to be "aired." The person who had been appointed to lead that meeting, along with assorted faculty members associated with it, were especially excited about the impending arrival of someone I will call Terry Allen.

Terry is black. Terry, as it happened, had left linguistics a good 15 years ago, before making any mark, and was stopping by at the Institute for a brief spell just to keep in touch. Terry had also not, as most black American linguists, worked in a subfield of linguistics devoted to racial issues in any meaningful way.
Yet there was this buzzing excitement about the arrival of Terry. The mere enunciation of her name was so frequent that it almost sounded like a bird call. "When is Terry coming? Terry Allen! Terry Allen!"

But really, the sole reason anyone was so excited about Terry coming was because Terry was black. Terry had left the field long ago; it wasn't about an oeuvre these people respected and wanted to meet the author of. None of the people knew anything at all about Terry except skin color.

That was especially clear when the Diversity Meeting coordinator happened, at the dining hall, to sit down the table from another black attendee she hadn't met. "Are you Terry Allen?!?!" she exclaimed--but it was not. The attendee was offended, and brought it up at the next "diversity" meeting, upon which the coordinator got a little ugly, upon which the attendee asked why the coordinator had to get that way, upon which the coordinator--a Latina--said that in her culture it was traditional to get feisty in confrontations.

It seemed to me that "diversity" was not doing anybody any good at that meeting, nor in people being all a-twitter at the imminent arrival of Terry for no reason except that Terry was not white.
I hung out with Terry. Great fun. And at one point when we were doing so, a white bright light in linguistics walked by and genially said "Aha--what are you two cooking up?"

"You two." What made us "two"? I need not even specify. He was no "racist;" he is, in fact, quite sensitive to race issues in America, as I have seen here and there since. He recently invited me to speak at a conference on the basis of my work alone, race not an issue. But still--I cannot imagine him tossing off the "cooking up" comment if I had been talking to someone white, or if Terry had been talking to someone white. He saw us as black, just as the various cheeping heralds of the arrival of Terry were aroused by Terry's color rather than any article with Terry's name on it--which none of them could have even provided.

That week ten years ago, to me, is "diversity" in the academy. On paper, it's about getting past race. In reality, too often it's about people reaffirming their moral solidity by having black people around, and/or ranking people's melanin over their individuality. I could tell a good dozen "Terry" type stories, and like stories of racist abuse against black men by the police, they are not dismissible as "anecdotes."

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