Erec Smith is an assistant professor and writing center director for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. At Drew University, his prior institution, he had administrative duties as a diversity officer and cabinet member. He has published on the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and writing center theory ("Writing Under the Bodhi Tree") and is interested in the intersection of spirituality, rhetoric and diversity. His 2008 novel, Creamy Nougat, explores the relationships of race, class and social status in a “post-racial” context. He is currently interested in community writing centers and works with Philadelphia’s Spells Writing Center (http://www.phillyspells.org/), putting on workshops for children and adults in the region.
As a professor of rhetoric and composition, a writing center director, a former diversity officer, and a writer of a novel that I can comfortably define as “post-racial,” I have much to say about the presence and nature of diversity initiatives on college and university campuses. I have been pulled by a campus’ desire for unity in diversity and pushed by the same campus’ resistance to being “forced” to open its collective mind. I have seen the oppressor become the oppressed and vice versa. I have seen diversity activities backfire, making dominant and subordinate people more solidified in their roles.
Throughout all of this, I’ve noticed that in higher education, we seem to be focusing on the effects instead of the causes, the symptoms instead of the disease (this trend is clearly reflected in the fact that, on most campuses, the diversity officer is a glorified ombudsperson only called upon when something racist happens and not to celebrate or promote diversity). To help more of us in higher education move in a more corrective direction, first step would be to revise the term “post-racial” for a more accurate view of society. “Post-racial” is not to say that racism does not exist. Instead it acknowledges that racism exists, but the perpetrators are not members of a homogenous, easily identified cohort. I argue that in post-racial America, there is a “neutrality of culpability” that pits us all as identity-creating beings dealing with seemingly involuntary drives to essentialize. The monolithic issues of institutional and environmental racism should not be ignored but approached differently—by deducing generalizing modes of identity toward more specific moments of xenophobia (its construction, maintenance and benefits).
A fine example of approaching race through the phenomenon of identity construction is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity (2005). In a chapter titled “The Demands of Identity,” Appiah address “the not-uncontroversial assumption that differences of identity are, in various ways, prior to those of culture” (64). He initially uses the example of the Robbers Cave experiment, in which two groups of white, Protestant, middle-class boys were placed on a Robbers Cave State Park campsite in close proximity—but separate—from each other. After each group had a few days to bond, one group was told of the existence of the other group, and after challenging each other in competitive sports, “tempers flared and a violent enmity developed between the two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles (as they came to dub themselves)” (62).
The animosity between the two groups was alleviated only when the researchers who devised the experiment created “shared subordinate goals” for the two groups. The researchers staged a water and food shortage that caused both groups to have to work together to ensure survival (or, at least, comfortable living for the amount of time they were left on the campsite). After the Rattlers and Eagles cooperated for such an important cause, the demarcations between the groups were shattered (113): “We often treat cultural differentia as if they give rise to collective identities,” writes Appiah, but “what happened at Robbers Cave suggests we might think of it the other way around” (64), meaning seeing the trees for the forest, looking at individual performance, and focusing on a hierarchical relationship between groups. At this point, I would like to argue that Obama’s description of contemporary America, in his famous speech on race, strongly implies a definition of “post-racial” that echoes a neutrality of culpability.
In his “A More Perfect Union,” speech, the televised response to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for his unapologetically racist remarks against White America, Obama initially reiterates his familial and social background (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/). He states that he is “the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas,” and that he is “married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He goes on to say “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”
Obama describes himself as an example diversity personified and praises America for being the sole place where such a person could exist. But by setting up his comparison of White and Black racial issues he also promotes the idea of a neutrality of culpability (a phrase that I believe we should use instead of post-racial):
As imperfect as [Wright] may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened
my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children…. I can no more disown
him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can
my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this
world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on
the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic
stereotypes that made me cringe.
I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them
together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have
different stories, but we hold common hopes . . .
This neutrality of culpability is also illustrated in Diane Goodman’s book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice (2001). Goodman lists several types of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc), their corresponding dominant groups (males, whites, heterosexuals, etc) and subordinate groups (females, people of color, homosexuals, etc). She does this in order to show how one person can embody both a dominant and subordinate membership but, for one reason or another, tends to embrace just one. She writes:
We all have multiple social identities that, depending on the social category,
may place us in either a dominant or subordinate group, on different sides of
the power dynamic. I, like most others, am part of both advantaged and
disadvantaged groups. For example, I am a woman and a Jew and therefore am part
of the subordinate group in sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet, I am also White,
heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and in my middle-adult years, which
makes me a member of several dominant groups as well. Our particular
constellation of social identities shapes our experiences and our sense of self.
The point is that we are all constructions and abstractions. This realization may lend some insight into how we see others who we’ve constructed as different from our constructed selves. This is not to say that racism does not exist and does not affect our lives, but a neutrality of culpability may alleviate “diversity fatigue” among traditionally oppressive and oppressed groups and re-construct diversity studies in the future. If we understand race as a symptom of illusive demarcations of judger/judged—thus acknowledging each other as both judger and judged—we can more easily embrace the commonalities we already have as human beings. I am confident in saying that if people in higher education really want to improve diversity relations, they will broach the subject by exploring the social construction of group position.