the rhetorics of diversity

Victor Villaneuva has a post over at the CCCC blog titled Rhetorics of Racism. It’s a great read, critiquing rhetoric used around racism, drawing on Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s four tropes of racism (abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism/biologicization of racism, and minimization), and critiquing the emptiness of terms like diversity and multiculturalism.

This week my LGBT Studies students read an excerpt from Jeffrey Escoffier’s American Homo in which Escoffier critiqued identity politics, which he sees as being mostly about creating solid borders between groups of people and about contested space for representation. We can never see full inclusion, he argues, with this version of politics, because there is always limited space. I asked our students to think about our syllabus from this identity politics angle. Where was an explicitly Jewish voice? And then, if we had a Jewish voice, what type of Judaism do they practice? We would have to include Orthodox, Hasidic, Reform, and so forth. We can never be fully inclusive. Multiculturalism in the form of identity politics leads to a politics and public space that is always contested.

And suddenly, representation becomes enough. As one of the commenters on Villaneuva’s post point to, The Chronicle has an article about the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (subscription required), which a few friends of mine as well as some of my students attended. Quite the presentation, evidently:

In a move befitting this wild locale, one of the nation’s leading proponents of diversity in higher education turned on her audience in a biting speech delivered on Thursday. Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, suggested that colleges let people attend this annual conference “typically held in family-friendly tourist destinations” to reward them for not making waves by pushing for more equity and black and Hispanic representation on campus.

Calling herself “a hard-nosed critic from the inside,” Ms. Hu-DeHart said, “Let’s face it: Diversity has created jobs for all of us. It is a career. It is an industry.”

“We do what we need to keep our jobs,” she said. “But as long as we keep doing our job the way we are told to do it, we are covering up for our universities.”

“You all are covering up,” she said. “You all are complicit in this.”

The problem, she argued, is that those who attend the conference “and work in college offices dealing with diversity and minority issues” help their institutions create the impression that they are far more concerned with diversity and equity than is actually the case.

Escoffier suggests an alternative to “diversity” multiculturalism and proposes that instead we focus on dialogue, not as an ends in itself, but as a way to build coalitions. There are four things we must learn in order to have effective dialogue:

  1. We are not immutable: we change, our ideas change, and our identities change.
  2. There is no universal interpretation; we will all interpret or misinterpret based on a variety of factors. Everything in the public is up for criticism.
  3. We must accept that there will be conflict, that we will feel pain and be hurt.
  4. Questions will always be re-opened. We will always need to be in dialogue. (Escoffier 200)

As Villaneuva concludes his post, we must be attuned to the rhetorics that convey the message that greater acceptance of difference is the same as greater fairness despite difference.

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