Thursday, August 07, 2008

Why Do We Really Need the Word, "Diversity"?

Introductory Bio

A long-time anti-racism activist and educator, Frankie Condon is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Writing Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Prior to her arrival at UNL, Frankie directed writing centers at St. Cloud State University, Siena College, and, as a graduate student, at the State University of New York. Frankie has been involved in anti-racism through networks such as the Dismantling Racism Project in Albany, New York, and the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She has also led numerous anti-racism workshops for community members and college faculty across the Midwest and is co-facilitator of the International Writing Center Association (IWCA) Special Interest Group on Antiracist Activism. Frankie's recent publications include the co-authored book, The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, which includes the chapter "Everyday Racism: Anti-Racism Work and Writing Center Practice" (2007) and "Beyond the Known: Writing Centers and the Work of Anti-Racism" in the Writing Center Journal (2007). Recently, Frankie has delivered several keynote addresses on anti-racism, which are part of a larger book project on identity, subjectivity, and the teaching of writing one-with-one.

Blog Entry

“I know, I know. We all hate the word diversity,” says the keynote speaker who is encouraging the group of us gathered for this regional conference to get and stay organized. I lean back. Maybe she’s feeling like the word harangues her, I think. Or maybe she’s just tired of hearing it. Or maybe she’s speaking to its inadequacies. My eyes are still on the podium, but now I’ve left the building. I’m wandering through past-times: my childhood as a white kid in a multi-racial family, all of us stuck in love and rage; my activism with the Dismantling Racism Project back in Albany during graduate school; the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative I worked with in Minnesota; the years of mourning and fighting and celebrating like mad; all the talking and the writing; all the pointless commiseration and transformative communion of anti-racism work. The word doesn’t do my memory justice.

But no, I don’t hate the word “diversity.” Then again, I don’t try very often to “address diversity” in my teaching, scholarship, and service unless I’m writing something that people will have to vote on or agree to (like giving my writing center more money so we can do work that truly needs to be done).

Diversity is a fast-word. It’s a word that’s all about efficiency. Diversity stands in when saying what we really mean would take too long or when folks would like to feel good, but not be called upon to care too much or to care beyond the demands of professionalism or the bounds of civility. Diversity is the sign on the door of a room filled with boxes, stuffed with crates: lost and found objects, the detritus of institutional initiatives of all sorts: recruit more rural kids – no, wait, more city kids; retain more students of color; produce an articulation agreement with a school in Beijing or Budapest; be accommodating to fundamentalist Christian Republicans. Diversity is the entrance to a room stacked with books from Jossey-Bass that made the rounds of administrative and faculty offices and now, discarded, have found their final resting place; old student papers in response to well-intentioned assignments; “Teach Tolerance” stickers still on their sheets; “Safe Space” signs removed from office and dormitory doors as occupants depart.

Every institution has to have a Diversity Room with a door. It helps with sorting. Where does this idea go? Oh, just inside that door, in the Diversity Room. And you can walk past the door and feel good that it’s there. It’s good for all of us that we work in places with rooms like that, with doors that close. Diversity closes. Diversity encloses.

Okay, so I don’t hate the word. I need it sometimes, I admit. But it’s not a word that drives my teaching, writing or service. That work -- or what drives the work -- gathers at the threshold of the term, “diversity:” the history, the materiality, of lived conditions within, through, and under racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism – these drive the work. Irritatingly, perhaps, I want to change the terms of the question. I want to respond to the question, “How do you address the work of anti-oppression in your scholarship, teaching, and service?”

So much of my work, whether in the classroom, the writing center, my writing, or my services to department and institution seems to me now to have been and still to be wrestling with the social and rhetorical production of indifference and exploring the conditions for individual and collective care. How is it, I wonder, and in whose service is any one of us conscripted to do the labor of remembering and forgetting, contrasting, aligning, identifying, appropriating, lying, composing and belonging? I wonder these things because the cultivated performances and performance limits of comfort, generosity and hospitality among and between those who take on these forms of labor within particular communities of meaning-making and practice produces, I think, an expansive and cultivated everyday sort of indifference -- to oppression.

To teach, write, and serve with these questions and this belief at the heart of my praxis, more than demanding a particular set of practices or a particular content, requires of me a mindscape capable of evolving, of learning, of humility and of playing with care. If creating the conditions in which care rather than indifference is cultivated and valued, I cannot begin with the premise that my students or my colleagues are already or irremediably indifferent. Rather, I am challenged to remember, recognize, and acknowledge the difficult and contested terrain on which all of our subject positions and subjectivities are predicated. I am challenged to sustain a mindfulness of the mutability and partiality of theoretical knowledge in accounting for the lived conditions that produce experiential knowledge – my own and that of my students and colleagues. I have to be persistent in my search for the plentiful coordinating conjunction between us: the me-and, us-and, white-and, straight-and, middle class-and—and so on. I’m searching for the -ands not as an act of artifice and denial but as an active, ongoing acknowledgement of simultaneous materiality and fallaciousness of scripted or socially constructed identities and their associated performances. The -and in teaching, learning, writing, and serving is concomitantly an act of identification and dis-identification, an acknowledgment of the complex ways in which privilege and disenfranchisement, freedom and oppression are distributed, limited, enforced, conditionally offered and liberally withdrawn. The -and is not an attribute nor can it be possessed. The -and is about remembering without denying the memory of others, knowing and coming to know without foreclosing what others know or how others come to know. The -and is about seeing oneself reflected in the gaze of the other, listening to the ways one might be named by the other without believing or insisting that the other is or ought to be you and without pretending to be them. It’s a way of becoming I keep reaching for, missing, and reaching for again. The -and, for me, is an ongoing effort to acknowledge the transitive conditions of identity and to stretch toward transgression of what is given and received in and through identity formation.

I want and I hope I can teach writing in a classroom or a class located in the writing center, be a writer, be a colleague who resists absorbing or appropriating difference and who works and teaches for a “nonviolative relation to the Other” (see Drucilla Cornell, The Philosophy of the Limit, 1992). I want and I hope I can teach, write, be, and become in ways that “test the limits of vision and remembrance,” that “mind the aporia between seeing and knowing ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’” (Kyo Maclear, “The Limits of Vision: Hiroshima Mon Amour and the Subversion of Representation,” Routledge 2003). I want and I hope I can teach, write, and serve toward a just and ethical community in which hope coexists with and, indeed, depends upon questioning, reflection, the recognition of contradiction, the acknowledgement of complicity, mourning, celebration, and the embrace of wonderment. But to address any or all of these pedagogical goals (or life goals), I have to (and I’m always learning this the hard way) teach with a pressing recognition of the inherent impossibility of accomplishing them (at least in any measurable sense such that they could be checked off the individual or institutional to-do list). So really the goal is not finality, not winning by individually being the one who finally embodies and enacts a perfected anti-oppressive stance and successfully performs that finitude in any professional setting, but to teach, write, serve, or play such that the learning attending these goals continues and such that the work can also continue.

I really don’t hate the word, “diversity.” And I’m pragmatic enough, I guess, to think that institutions and organizations really do need the word. We – that’s the institutional “we” as opposed to the collective “we compositionists” or “we teachers” or we activists” – we need the word “diversity” and we need statements of principle about “diversity” because the word enables otherwise lumbering, somnambulant institutions to move, to shift even if just a little bit. We need the word because some significant number of our stakeholders are doing risky justice work in service of real need; we need the word to give them protection and legitimacy – to give them cover. We need the word because however facile we may find its typical deployment “diversity” continues to assert the importance of justice. The word whispers the names of those conditions it is so often now used to conceal or efface: racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. And in that whisper “diversity” acknowledges the reality that they are with us, that we are with them, that we do them and that there is, therefore work to be done.


Yvonne said...

Today, we need to honor DIVERSITY more than ever. People are being compromised for the status quo. It's scary out there and this country has gone backwards.

Thanks CCCC.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan

Zamboni Mama said...

Dear Yvonne,

Yes! Like you I do think we need to, have to, must honor difference. And like you I believe it's scary out there. Like you, I believe that we are sliding backwards; well, actually I believe that despite some extraordinary accomplishments of the civil rights struggles, we never really accomplished all that we claimed. We appear to be backsliding, but I think the truth is that it suited too many Americans to believe that we had done enough (or too much), that we could rest on the labor and laurels of Others.

The problem I'm struggling with is the myriad ways in which the word "Diversity" has been and continues to be used to stand in for honoring difference. The word is not enough. And in some way the word occludes the voicing of other words that might more powerfully name those conditions from which we have never really departed and into which we seem increasingly to be (back)sliding. Words like Oppression, Exploitation,and Repression. And words like Racism, Xenophobia, Homophobia, and Nationalism.

Having said all of this, though, my point is not that we don't need the word, "diversity," at all, but that we need most the real work that lies beneath the word. I worry about the times when the word is evoked to justify not doing that work or to justify doing some work in ways that won't fundamentally rock the boat.

I think one of the reasons for the creation of this blog is to enable CCCC's to begin the work of constructing an official position and position statement on diversity. I think the words we choose in constructing such a statement will matter greatly. I guess my hope is that when that statement is crafted, it will speak both to the necessity of honoring Difference and to the necessity of working hard to create the conditions in which that honoring can be authentic and meaningful by which I mean Real in a lived, material sense.

With Very Warm Regards,

John said...

Interesting blog, and as is often the case, the currency and circulation of such a word, especially one as important as "diversity," tends to downplay complex dynamics of its corresponding reality through our increased use of its symbolism. On the other hand, perhaps the context the word is often used in has a more positive connotation of hope than the often disturbing reality it represents.

John Stovall

Beth said...


I found your post really provocative, and I'm left wondering about the usefulness of the word diversity when it "whispers" the work of anti-oppression. I'm curious about some of the times you've found it useful to stick with the word diversity -- and some of the times you've named your work as anti-racist, non-violent, social justice work, etc. Thanks for leaving me with lots of food for thought!


Yvonne said...


I totally agree with you. I love it when you wrote,
"The problem I'm struggling with is the myriad ways in which the word 'Diversity' has been and continues to be used to stand in for honoring difference. The word is not enough. And in some way the word occludes the voicing of other words that might more powerfully name those conditions from which we have never really departed and into which we seem increasingly to be (back)sliding. Words like Oppression, Exploitation,and Repression. And words like Racism, Xenophobia, Homophobia, and Nationalism."

Yesterday I was speaking with a woman of color who is director of a Women's Safe House, and you speak to the issues we discussed at length (2 hours).

I agree, we have not done enough and there is much work to do. All I have to do is look around. Boy could I tell you some stories that expose just what your message communicated.

Keep up the good work! And I also loved your last sentence, too.

With respect,
Yvonne Siu-Runyan

D Hurst said...

I have a love-hate relationship with the word "diversity" because it seems to state the obvious (we're all different) as if that was a goal and not a fact. One day, perhaps, we won't need to fund or advocate for diversity because we'll stop looking at (for?) difference and celebrate our shared humanity. I teach to young men and women who know that "diversity" is another word for "minority" when it comes to money issues on and off campus. I almost never use the term in class. Instead, we read Anzaldua and Tan, Cisneros, Cofer and Malcolm X, hooks and Alexie and a host of others, especially writers local to our area (California's Central Valley). We don't talk about diversity, we talk about how so many diverse writers became empowered to speak.

Pathe Sow said...

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines diversity as, “1. a) The fact or quality of being diverse; difference; b) A point or respect in which things differ. Variety; multiformity: a healthy diversity in one’s diet.”

In the broader definition, cultural diversity should be viewed as a “healthy diet” not for the nourishment of the body, but for the feeding of the mind. Viewed from this perspective, cultural diversity helps us understand one another and tolerate one another for who we are, but not for what other wants us to become.

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