“I’m in awe of the diverse backgrounds, talents and academic abilities of the new members of the Class of 2020,” Pomona College’s Dean of Admissions proudly stated in an announcement introducing the admitted class of 2020. “And I look forward to welcoming them to the Pomona community.”
Students and faculty alike are thrilled about Pomona’s admission of the most racially diverse class to date, and understandably so. Racial diversity is certainly something that should be taken into consideration when celebrating a year’s admits and in looking at the progress we as people of color have made in academia. However, race is not the be-all end-all for defining diversity on campus, and nor should it be the sole cause for rejoicing; it is ultimately the diversity of thought that is praiseworthy in building an interconnected, catenated community. Being eager to learn about others’ experiences, I will not feel excited about Pomona’s “diversity” until the ideologies, political and ethical contrasts, and upbringings of students are as dissimilar, yet still communicable. As a person of color myself, I feel more entitled to confront the number of issues I see with how we as students of color talk about race—not how White people should act—and because I evidently don’t identify as White, I am more concerned about what we can do to start the dialogues about race. The diversity of Pomona’s student body as it stands now is only skin deep, and to make these differences more than a pat-ourselves-on-the-back statistic, we as students regardless of race have to undertake a shift in how we address identity.
The dynamic diversity of thought begins where the now hollow definition of “diversity” ends: once the students are admitted and become members of the community. Among those celebrating this historic moment are the current Pomona students of color who push for “safe space” communities built to avoid confrontation with those of dissenting viewpoints—including those within their own demographic(s). Speaking from experience, this alienates people of color with different experiences who may come to a school as diverse as Pomona to seek out dialogue among people with similar identities, yet varied points of view. Defenders of the safe-space phenomenon often argue that it is needed as a coping mechanism as a form of self-preservation, but the reality is that any method resulting in removing oneself from opportunities to reach out to other people will, whatever one calls it, make both parties less likely to connect.
Creating a vibrant conversation between different identities and experiences is the only way to take the fullest advantage of diversity on campus. But so far, this conversation has not seemed possible. The endless “discussions” on campus engender a warped sort of echo-chamber validation that further incentivizes students to avoid conversations with those who hold conflicting views or opinions. Student-led discussions, such as the sustained dialogue on silencing and “tone policing” held at Scripps last semester, have amounted to nothing more than a way for students to express aggressive hostility to opposing views while silencing any kind of rebuttal or challenge to their beliefs. To these students, as Sophie Mann so aptly put it, feelings assume the role of facts, and both the vilified and the vilifying parties go their separate ways bereft of intellectual growth.
While I have witnessed both White and non-White students distancing themselves from conversations regarding race, White students do not expect the same sort of understanding of, and empathy towards, their identity that many students of color do. This sentiment makes sense, as White students’ racial identities are generally not challenged nor made vulnerable by the presence of their counterparts, as it is such the other way around; this is to say that White people do not need the kind of consolation many students of color have come to necessitate. Their desire for commiseration is unmet because they are seeking a number of paradoxical and mutually incompatible forms of treatment from White students. In looking to White students for validation and affirmation of their racial identity, they simultaneously believe White students are unable to comprehend the very concept of racial identity. They then embrace a self-victimizing mentality which garners only pity, not respect, from White students. Though much of their unease and uncomfortability is legitimate and warranted, the fellow-feeling they receive from White students, ironically in the form of pity or subtle patronization, is not as respectful or as congenial as they would like.
What confuses me the most is how although students of color want White students to look through their eyes, they expect that White students come into conversations about racial identity already looking through the eyes of a person of color, or at the very least with an adequate amount of knowledge about race. After conjecturing that many White students do not have the faculty or the background to discuss race, they insist on White people “educating themselves” because they have Google and, as has been explained to me on countless occasions, they have “the necessary researching skills, given that they made it to such a prestigious college.” But how can students of color seriously expect White people to even care about their issues when they push and pull White people so much? White people are not under any actual obligation, and have no need to, become more racially sensitive and aware. When students of color will not take the time to explain what race means to them, they then give up the right to complain about how ignorant they believe White people to be, given that their silence is contributing to it. These antinomies result from both insecurities of the racial identities of these students of color, along with a feeling that if somebody—against whom these students are biased—legitimizes a belief system that may prove conflicting with their own, then their beliefs are somehow of more merit and thusly more authoritative accounts of the “person of color experience.” The problem is that although a few White students may genuinely not want to discuss race, or even spend time with people of color, the rest are quite receptive and open to hearing about people of color’s racial experiences, but are made less so by the exasperating struggle to even know where to begin learning.
But this is not only the fault of the students; the administration is also involved in further lowering the impetus of White students heeding racial issues with serious consideration. Given the recent push on campus for college-approved, racially-segregated safe spaces, the Claremont Colleges have become complicit in furthering the self-congratulatory, mutual admiration society that limits the discourse they claim to want to promote by having students of so many unique, yet dissimilar identities. What’s worse, the colleges play no role in preventing what comes from these delineations: entitled, one-sided demurring where even people of color are humiliated and silenced when their views do not fall in line with the progressive narrative. If admitting such a racially manifold group of students results in their self-removal and lack of ideation from exposure to other identities and experiences, does racial diversity warrant celebration at all?
In their efforts to diversify the student body, Pomona recently adopted a strategic plan created by the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity entitled “Lighting the Path to 2025: A Vision for Diversity.” In this document, the word “diversity” is defined as “the multiple, intersecting dimensions of difference that help distinguish one individual or group from another.” This plan does include a section on seeking to “foster a climate that welcomes dissenting views,” though the only strategy proposed to do so is to “promote social spaces of interaction between faculty, staff, and students.” But in practice, these spaces—such as the sustained dialogues—are not settings where discourse is encouraged. Rather, they provide a bully pulpit for those students who have no interest in considering or internalizing others’ opinions, and discourage students with different views from contributing to the discourse on campus. As far as I have seen, it is the students of color who are reluctant to adapt to a climate of dissenting views. Within the echo chambers of these race-specific communities, an aversion to the consideration of opposing viewpoints is glorified.
Much of this vision only seeks to integrate a greater number of people of color into Pomona without addressing the already present and crippling fissures disuniting the student body: students of color’s feelings of disregard towards their identities, White students’ feelings of being villainized despite them making their best efforts to engage in a dialogue with students of color, and neither party having a successful means of communication. Students of non-minority demographics are expected to embrace and embody these other identities while remaining silent about their own, even though they themselves contribute to the diversity of Pomona. They are asked to internalize the experiences and opinions of marginalized students, yet there is no reciprocation of this sentiment on behalf of “non-marginalized” students. If even as diversity stands now there is this much dissonance, how can we expect the community to develop with even more variation in the student body?
While the administration of Pomona itself can create as many resources, opportunities, and conversations from the top down as it wants, it is up to the students to challenge and better themselves and their perspectives. Before we begin to focus on admitting more diverse students, we need to establish a culture of discourse so that those already here can freely express their beliefs in a dialogical manner. What we need to do as a community is to understand that each and every student admitted to Pomona has their own unique and equally-valuable narrative regardless of race. With these various upbringings, creating conversations that may be uncomfortable or objectionable to some—yet pivotal for expressing the identity of others—may help bridge the gap because there will be less hesitation to have challenging discussions. Much of the diversity that we as a community seek will come from our exposure to the diversity of thought, not the diversity of superficial qualities.
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