I started reading Walter Benn Michaels’s book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love identity and Ignore Inequality last spring, but never got far or around to finishing it, so tonight, having decided to take a night off from both grading and PhD applications, I picked it up again and started over from scratch.
What makes this read ironic tonight is that i had just gotten home from being taped for a campus video about diversity (in particular, I and a few other men were talking about our perspectives as feminist men).
Here’s my short synopsis of the introduction to the book (quote-heavy as it is):
In his introduction to The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, Walter Benn Michaels previews his book’s argument, that “we love raceâ€”we love identityâ€”because we don’t love class” (6). He writes that “treating [economic classes] as if they were like races or cultures â€” different but equal â€” is one of our strategies for managing inequality rather than minimizing or eliminating it” (10). Michaels is concerned that “the really radical ideal of redistributing wealth becomes almost literally unthinkable” (15) in our society that focuses on diversity. The Left’s “commitment to diversity is at best a distraction [from the pursuit of economic equality] and at worst an essentially reactionary position” (16).
Michael’s considers his book “an attack on that trick” of diversity: that the solution to our problems is elimination of prejudice (20). Because economic class is re-described as race or culture (as it was in the excellent example of The Great Gatsby [2-3]), we think it’s more important to eliminate classism than it is to eliminate inequality.
I find myself hesitantly agreeing with what Michaels argues thus far, but that hesitation is still strong. This is largely because of:
1) his dismissal of the narrative of the “not fully at ease” people who moved up in class (9);
2) his belief that, following Henry Ford, “History is bunk” (18); and
3) his lack of discussion about unearned privileges from being white, male, able-bodied, etc.
In regards to the first point, as someone who was raised working class and now is middle class, I can attest to the different social cues and different discourse of the two classes that can be hard to master in order to feel like one belongs (I’m not saying I had it terribly difficult, though). (Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams is an excellent discussion, I believe, of this.)
But I’ve only read the introduction, and I’m looking forward to reading more.
EDIT: As I was walking to campus this morning, I thought of my fourth hesitation: 4) Thus far, he’s addressed racism (and other -isms) only in regards to prejudice, not in regards to institutional oppression. This, of course, may be due to the fact that his critique is geared towards liberalism, but still, it’s concerning to me.