FRAZIER: Decommodifying diversity

A “What’s the Word” column

Wonderful in theory, attempts at increasing diversity have not maintained the moral high ground with which they began. Diversity promises a world in which we exchange ideas, value each other and live together respectfully. It promises harmony and for a very long time stood as a beacon of hope. But the way in which we currently discuss diversity is misguided, and due to that misdirection it will not have, and has not had, the desired effect. I think to really highlight this point, though, we have to discuss what exactly we want from diversity.

Workforce equitability can be traced to President Harry Truman's 1948 executive order desegregating and requiring equal treatment in the U.S. Armed Forces. With the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, institutional diversity was driven by "a sense of moral obligation" and a mandate that institutions comply with the new laws. Following a 1987 book by Secretary of Labor William Brock titled “Workforce 2000,” which outlined the ways in which diversity would become linked to productivity, the tone of diversity efforts shifted from one of moral uprightness to sterile business efficiency. As immigration increased from Africa, Asia and Latin America, so would the share of the workforce and consumer markets these people influenced, thus making it imperative to maintaining and growing profit to cater to, educate and hire more diverse demographics. Just like that, diversity was commodified.

We need to stop talking about diversity as a tool. We need to stop talking about the ways diversity improves rankings, increases bottom lines and makes “us” better. “Us” has always implied the existence of a “them,” and in the context of higher education and business, that “us” is the white majority that existed within those spaces prior to integration — but minorities should not be the means by which white people’s profits and educations are improved. Instead we should get at the heart of why diversity, after centuries of this country rejecting the embracement of difference, finally became a buzzword. We thought, after all, there actually was something to invoking the golden rule, and figured it was about time we lived up to the aspirational ideals on which this country was founded: liberty and equality and truly equal opportunity.

What we need to start questioning, then, is why those egalitarian ideals for which we fight and that we tout worldwide weren’t enough to keep us engaged right here at home. Why have we had to shift the rhetoric of conversations from trying to make right what is now an objectively and admittedly wrong past, to conversations focused on explaining to the skeptics why they will actually be the ones to benefit from diversity? Why are we so much more inclined to hail something that increases a business’ or a university’s bottom line than we are to exalt an increase in basic human dignity? Why did we turn our backs on sticking to our moral guns and opt instead to commoditize basic decency? And if we could do so, do we have any moral guns at all?

Diversity was the way in which we were supposed to rectify that basic human instinct only to do and care about what benefits “us” either personally or as an in-group. Diversity was the means by which our progress was to take a giant leap forward. So now that it, too, has taken to answering the question, “What do I get out of this?” — yes, we should be worried. We should be worried that we can’t see past ourselves. We should be worried that people would rather some be held back and relegated to the sidelines, than have to compete with the millions of people who, not long ago, could not even enter the game. We should be worried that to get the leaders — in business, in education, in government and of the future — to care about others, we have to speak about other people like they are variables to be weighed in a strategic pro-con list. We should be worried that we can’t be bothered to care about that which we don’t think concerns us.

Diversity needs to return to its initial conception. It needs to be about what is right, as opposed to what is profitable. People are not meant to be tools; they are meant to be seen, heard and inherently and automatically valued. If we can get to that place, I don’t really know what it will do for budgets, sales projections or rankings, but humanity as an ideal might see a greater return on investment than most have ever thought to be possible.

Aryn Frazier is a contributing writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance’s bi-weekly “What’s the Word” column.

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