Columns

Esemplare ’18: Redefining diversity

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 14, 2016

Over the course of the current academic year, perhaps no topic has been more in the consciousness of the Brown community than diversity. Diversity is a common buzzword on college campuses, and we all have at least some sense of what it represents. Whether you have joined in a protest this semester or not, you’ve probably at least considered what diversity means and how it affects the University.

At Brown and across other campuses, diversity has come to be narrowly defined as the representation of  certain marginalized groups. Indeed, attracting these groups to Brown’s campus is an important aspect of making Brown the type of diverse community that it strives to be. The purpose of such diversifying efforts is twofold: On a societal level, access to a college education has a meaningful effect on the opportunities open to individuals. Providing equitable access to higher education can thus serve as a tool to combat systemic social issues. On the university level, such diversifying efforts also aim to create an enriching environment on campuses, fostering various perspectives that reflect a large breadth of experience. We expend a great deal of energy addressing the first purpose of diversity in uplifting marginalized groups but sometimes overlook important factors that help us achieve the second purpose — to create a campus environment with truly diverse perspectives. As a result, we limit the meaning of the word diversity in both concept and action and are unable to reap its full benefits.

While I support the effort to advocate on behalf of historically marginalized groups, I do find it interesting and sometimes frustrating that, at Brown and campuses across the country, we often have difficulty imagining what diversity would look like beyond this narrow definition of the word. Indeed, to call for increased diversity on campus is essentially shorthand for calling to increase representation of marginalized groups. In literal terms, this significantly narrows the word’s true meaning. In no trivial sense, we have redefined diversity as the need to combat marginalization. This is not to dismiss the value of one definition of diversity but to call attention to both definitions.

But I have more than a linguistic qualm with the word diversity’s modern usage. While the current connotation is consistent with my progressive values, I am still frustrated by the extent to which intelligent people fail to consider that diversity can exist outside the realm of historically marginalized groups. One area of this issue that Brown students would benefit by paying particular attention to is political diversity on campus.

While Brown proudly boasts its minority enrollment as diversity, anyone who has attended the school knows that to call Brown a diverse community is to blatantly ignore the lack of diversity of political thought on its campus. Most people who have heard of Brown know its stereotype — a recent Forbes list of college rankings mentions Brown’s reputation as the most liberal Ivy. A campus survey from this past fall states the matter more clearly: The leading Republican candidate for Brown students at the time was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, with the support of 1.6 percent of the student body. That number is staggeringly low, even for a liberal campus. In fact, cumulatively only 4.2 percent of students supported any of the three Republican candidates listed in the survey. Think of it this way: In a representative sample of 100 Brown students, you would expect to find about four who supported a Republican candidate at the time. That’s a diversity problem.

As stated above, one of the common arguments of those who support, for example, racial diversity, is that the exposure to a variety of different cultures and opinions helps improve educational experiences for all students. Using this logic, how can Brown be so complacently uniform in terms of its political orientation? If diverse opinions are what we are after, and if diversity is worth a $165 million investment, how can the campus’s current state of political uniformity not be harmful to education? Regardless of the party you vote for, it is necessary to come into contact with and exchange ideas that differ from your own. If Brown is a liberal bubble, it is to the detriment of the education it attempts to provide.

Earlier this semester, I attended a workshop run by the Brown Center for Students of Color entitled “Telling Diverse Narratives” for The Herald. The workshop was informative and addressed, among other topics, how language can be used to perpetuate marginalization. Nothing about the topic bothered me, and I felt that the workshop was well-intended and well-run. But I was bothered by the workshop’s inability to distinguish diversity from marginalization because the workshop, in truth, was not about “telling diverse narratives” in any sense, not if we consider diversity’s broader definition. Over the course of the workshop, it was impossible not to be struck by the fact that there was a very clear general air of agreement in the room as to what was right and wrong. Liberal values were, by the general consensus, correct, and the word “conservative” was occasionally used interchangeably with “unaccepting.” While the discussion centered on how language can be used to perpetuate marginalization, it often focused on language used specifically by Republicans. As an Independent with socially progressive views, it was easy to stay silent during these proceedings and be comforted by the like-mindedness of the group. But looking back, the uniformity of thought in that room diminished the conversation’s value. What could have been an educated debate was, due to a lack of diversity of political representation, reduced to a one-sided discussion that lacked an alternative perspective.

As a generally progressive student body, it is tempting to collectively decide that Brown’s liberal nature is explicitly good. Socially liberal ideologies are frequently deemed more accepting and inclusive than conservative ones, and liberal students in general are thus often convinced that a progressive campus indicates the type of inclusivity that Brown fosters. Nonetheless, if the workshop’s purported goal is to be achieved, one must first recognize that liberalism still does not represent diversity  in any meaningful sense. My qualm is not truly with the workshop, but with its title, which neglects the meaning of diversity outside of marginalized groups. Brown students often express a breed of snobbish ignorance when they chastise Fox News for its political bias but can’t seem to see their own. As a progressive student at a liberal university, I receive almost no conservative opposition to my social views. This can be comforting, but it is also patently dangerous. People are often quite sure that the opposition should hear their opinions but far less certain that they have any use for the opposition’s. 

This problem is not new to Brown, but perhaps this lack of diversity feels more alarming in light of the polarized political environment in our country. Compromise is an afterthought in a political system that revolves around ideological warfare. Our presidential debates are contemptuous. In its current state, Brown serves only to perpetuate this divide that, more than any crisis of national defense, threatens the demise of our nation. Indeed, we can only become the solution to this national emergency if our campus is a politically pluralistic environment and its students are comfortable and well-versed in the healthy exchange of disparate views.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at nicholas_esemplare@brown.edu.

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