The independent news organization of Duke University

Official versus real diversity

By my count, I have been instructed to "Celebrate Diversity!" about 27 times so far at Duke, and by now the phrase is enough to induce a visceral shudder of pain. Not that diversity's a bad thing--it isn't. It's just that it comes it two kinds: the real kind, and the official kind.

The official kind won't stop telling us how wonderful it is--it's the kind that sent my dad home from work this summer with a "Celebrating Diversity--Together We Make a Difference!" lunch bag and stress ball. But its real-world implications can be deadly.

An example from last year: the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reports that 65 percent of rapes of Norwegian women were committed by "non-Western" immigrants, mostly Muslims. The paper quotes a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, who says that "Norwegian women must take their share of responsibility for these rapes" because Muslim men found their clothing provocative. "Norwegian women must realize that we live in a multicultural society and adapt themselves to it."

An example of the real kind: New York City. Or Eminem. Ignore whatever lyrics you find offensive and you see a white man "acting black"--that is, sampling freely from a tradition not traditionally his own. Real diversity means cultural exchange, and exchange is diversity's only usefulness.

Believe it or not, that's what often happens when people are left to their own devices. The process of cultural fusion, with no thanks to queer theory or critical race studies, has given us everything from Japanese anime to that Sting song with overlaid lyrics in English and Arabic, from American Buddhism to a majority-Presbyterian South Korea, to Christianity itself, a blend of Jewish tradition and Greek Neo-Platonism. Last summer I saw in an art museum an ivory tusk apparently carved in medieval France with designs reminiscent of 10th-century Egypt. It's been going on forever.

These were not the products of people intellectually masturbating over their own identity--they came from consciously combining different cultures to see if something worthwhile would result. And with mass communication, easy travel and increasing intermarriage, fusion has been fighting a winning battle against the opposite tendency toward racism. "Americans continue to melt into each other," says a recent Salon article paraphrasing essayist Richard Rodriguez, "despite the census classifications and affirmative action programs that intend to deepen color lines."

But the good news doesn't apply everywhere in the world: Much of Europe is an exception, and so are those mini-Europes on our own soil we call college campuses. Ironically enough, college campuses are some of the worst places for real exchange, because here the theorists have stepped in. Let me give an example of the most embarrassing kind of official diversity I've seen so far.

At our freshman convocation last year, we heard a very good speech by Maya Angelou. At the end, I turned over our program, and printed on the back was: "This speech is intended to increase awareness of diversity at Duke University"--something she hadn't even mentioned! All I could conclude was that some people were absolutely delighted at the thought that a real, live black woman could be articulate and just wanted to pass the discovery along to us.

That's the problem with the theorists of official diversity: The words of a black woman, or any other minority, cannot be taken simply as interesting or intelligent--that they came from a black woman is the salient fact.

In this worldview, exchange is verboten: Westerners shouldn't study Middle Eastern culture, writes prominent Arab-studies professor Edward Said, because their very nationality makes them permanently biased and "inauthentic." Nor can exchange go in the other direction: It is to the school of official diversity that we owe epithets like "Uncle Tom" and "Twinkie" (brown on the outside, white on the inside, ha ha). It's natural that such a philosophy would reinforce self-segregation.

The problem at Duke isn't endemic racism. The problem is that we can have on our campus people of so many different races who manage to gain so little from each other. A problem like that can't be solved in the newspaper, but in my next column I'd like to suggest some new ways of thinking that could make life a little better.

Until then, this is the key thing to remember: Our nation owes much of its greatness to the melding of peoples, and our great discovery was that identities can be reshaped and transcended. But when we fixate on our identities, melding becomes impossible. Official diversity is an elaborate system of walls disguised as enlightenment. We pursue it at the risk of stagnation.

Rob Goodman is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears every other Friday.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Official versus real diversity” on social media.