July 26, 2004

The 'multiculturalism'/'diversity' tantrum

At least once a semester, at least one of my colleagues or I hear the following complaint from a student: "I've heard enough about diversity and multiculturalism!! Why can't we just treat each other as human beings?" I'd hazard a guess that anyone who's taught a social-foundations course in education or other classes where this topic pops up gets a similar complaint. It's a minor vent/rage against the topic itself as well as a response to disturbing views that someone might be reading. And until recently, I didn't understand it except as someone resisting the analysis required by the topic.

And then, in a committee meeting this spring, when we were discussing something (I can't remember what) and another member talked about the need for tolerance, I responded in my usual way to caution against that word—probably something like "You may not be aware that I'm not tolerant of racism"—when I felt something I usually don't on the topic: this small blurb of rage, a totally irrational spate of livid thoughts. I don't think I said much based on this, but afterwards, I realized that I was most angry at the assumption that mentioning tolerance was sufficient to paper over deep differences in power and philosophy. I was pissed that the popular language of diversity had replicated structural-functionalist language precisely over issues that generated conflict. "As long as you talk about it, and I tell you that I tolerate your views, that's enough." Aaaiiiii!

As my colleague Barbara Shircliffe has pointed out, the language of multiculturalism and diversity can be absorbed and coopted into the curriculum in a variety of ways, and this may be a reflection of its success. Like so much other reformist language, diversity is a malleable concept. Why do students need to learn about diversity? Beware that word "need," because it prompts a functionalist response—to be able to fit in as an adult in different workplaces. Now, I know that's true, but it's such a shallow explanation, and it shrinks the issues tied to diversity into the social psychology of the workplace. I guess we don't have to discuss affirmative-action policies, since you don't need to know that to "fit in" at work. And I guess we don't have to discuss anything else related to public policy, either.

So the next time I hear a "diversity tantrum," I'm going to probe a bit more deeply. Maybe it's a healthy response to rhetorical pablum that effaces conflict. That doesn't mean I'm going to agree with the speaker, necessarily, but it's another lever for discussion.

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Posted in Teaching on July 26, 2004 8:54 PM |