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Diversity should not be an educational tool

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In conversations about what Duke students love about Duke, we like to cite the diversity at Duke and the ability for us to be surrounded by people from “different backgrounds.” In academic contexts, the perspectives provided by a diverse populace are invaluable for meaningful conversations. 

We create an idealist picture of diversity at an elite university as a mosaic that has each student contributing their own unique flavor to the picture. However, at Duke, certain stories stick out more than others. Students do not contribute equally to this mosaic.

Students of color, especially Black and brown students, have perspectives that are often fundamentally different than white students—and therefore valuable to the university. The various facets of diversity at Duke is touted in statistics about incoming classes, and diversity is an underlying theme in o-week programming. In our conversations about diversity, we always talk about how much diversity teaches us. But we fail to acknowledge that the burden of teaching falls onto certain students. To truly value students of color, we need to reconsider our motivations for diversity initiatives, and clarify our intentions.

Racial diversity should not be for the educational benefit of white people. Socioeconomic diversity should not be for teaching wealthy students the hardships of the working class. Sexual diversity should not be a method of teaching tolerance to close-minded people. Diversity is for the benefit of the marginalized groups themselves, and for the community they are members of. Duke, and the organizations existing within it, should strive for diversity with the sole motivation of improving the experiences of minority students.

To white people: Has a person of color ever told you something that made you fundamentally change your perspective on an issue? I can point to several times in my life when a friend has made me rethink my understanding of something simply by providing a narrative of a life experience. For a while, I would look to instances of these as evidence for the benefit of diversity in academic settings. But I failed to ask myself why I had to be educated by a peer on this issue. Why was I unaware of this issue in the first place? It is my responsibility to have an understanding of systemic racism and inequity, this burden should not fall on my peers. There is a breadth of cultural studies at this university, and infinite resources available online. Even the media I consume can expand my baseline knowledge. Diversity of my peers should not be my sole source of education.

Last year I wrote my first column on the random roommate initiative, and I expressed my concerns for gay first-year students and other students with marginalized identities being used as a learning tool for white students. I was reminded of this subject recently when I viewed Dr. Sarah Gaither’s YouTube video explaining her findings from the random roommate “social experiment.” Dr. Gaither speaks about how the “added bonus and exposure to someone who is different” is a benefit of having a roommate of a different racial background or sexual orientation. In addition, having an other race roommate who is of a different race helps a student “better navigate a future diverse setting.” This conceptualization of diversity as a resource for white students illustrates how the exposure benefits of diversity are strictly one-way.

Social justice should be taught by the university, not first-year students. Duke could implement cultural studies requirements, as suggested by Dr. Nayoung Aimee Kwona, the director of the Asian American Studies Program, in order to give students the background to understand the perspectives of their peers. Diversity cannot be appreciated if students continue to place the initial burden on minority students and do not have the groundwork for meaningful discussion.

Duke has taken the initial steps of recruiting students with marginalized identities through invitational weekends and providing resources. But this diversity has not made its way into every corner at Duke, as inclusion is not yet satisfied. Student groups and pre-orientation programs remain unrepresentative of the student population. For student leaders, I encourage us to stop thinking about diversity in terms of the benefits accrued by white people and other majority populations. Instead, think of your peers with marginalized identities, and their experiences in your organization or program. They deserve to feel comfortable and have representation at all leadership levels. If your organization has severe lack of diversity, do more than just trying to recruit more students of color. Ask yourself, does this organization offer an appealing environment to students of color? Is there a community for them?

I wasn’t motivated to write this column only because of bitterness at how diversity is talked about at Duke. I was also motivated by the happiness I have experienced at Duke being around groups of diverse people who share my identities. Duke was my first time finding communities of other gay people, other Koreans, even other half-asians. I thought about why diverse groups and organizations make me the happiest and most comfortable, especially cultural groups which focus on elements of my identity that I rarely express. I want this positive experience for my peers, in all areas of campus life.

I don’t think I am necessarily entitled to a community that has representation from every aspect of my identity—that is infeasible. But I am so grateful for diverse communities and the initiatives that bring them about. I hope that by reframing the purpose of diversity, we can appreciate the aspects of our identities that we choose to celebrate. 

If we discuss diversity at Duke with a focus on the people who make it diverse, we can grow towards inclusion. There is much more to diversity than an appealing @DukeStudents photo, a statistic in the annual report, or a classroom of different perspectives. There are talented, creative, skilled students at Duke that value representation for themselves. Help create a community for them.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

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