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Shift focus from morality

I WALKED out of Old Cabell Hall at the end of the first part of the Charting Diversity: Honor, Commitment and Challenge symposium held last Friday with a distinct sense of discomfort. I ran into a friend in the lobby and cautiously expressed my skepticism at the kind of language that had been used all day at the conference. After hearing her reservations, we began to speak at ease about our own sense of the racial issue at the University.

For half an hour, we shared perspectives, thoughts and disagreements about the accepted assumptions surrounding the issue of diversity. It was as if we could only begin to speak sincerely after establishing a common dissent, as if we needed some kind of sanction for that dissent, which we found in a shared opinion. She too is Hispanic, and I was surprised to find a minority student who disagrees with current admission policies. We talked in whispers, we switched to Spanish, as if there was something wrong about our particular positions.

One word stands out from the talks given that Friday: morality. It came forth in the introduction. It was reiterated throughout the conferences. It was discussed at the roundtable I attended on Saturday. Regardless of students' questioning of the administration's commitment to diversity, one message resounded clearly throughout the symposium: Faculty and administration have not only acknowledged the value of diversity in education, but also have taken it upon themselves as a moral responsibility to make sure this remains a goal for the University.

On the one hand, it is a moral imperative tied to social and economic injustice and the need for equal opportunity. So far, so good. On the other hand, however, the symposium was not focused around socio-economic inequality, or around diversity in perspective and experience. It was centered almost exclusively around racial and ethnic diversity, with only peripheral references to difference in gender, nationality and sexual orientation.

The majority of the University community probably will acknowledge that racial discrimination is still a widespread problem both at the University and in the wider community. I have been both the object of discrimination and accused of discrimination, more for my nationality than for my race - try as I may to brush it off, the problem does not disappear with my personal wish to ignore it.

However, framing the issue of a moral commitment to diversity in the context of racial and ethnic terms has effects that are not given sufficient attention. What does using the term "morality" presume? First, that there is a right and a wrong, a good and an evil, and that the person appealing to morality is a "good guy," or at least strives to be. When "morality" is used to discuss issues like the current admissions policies and to advocate diversity in racial terms, that implicitly suggests that whoever is in disagreement with either the admissions policies or with framing diversity in racial terms is one of the "bad guys."

Put yourself in the position of a minority student. If it is the University's moral obligation to foster diversity, and you are obviously contributing to that diversity, is it not your moral obligation to identify yourself with your race, to -- in a sense -- provide diversity? What if you disagree with affirmative action? What if you want to study dead white males? What if you think ethnic organizations are a waste of time? Does that mean that you have fallen short of your responsibilities as one who was supposed to bring difference into the University?

Let's be reasonable, you might be saying. College is about learning who you are and pursuing that, regardless of what you find -- or at least, that's what we often are told. However, race is not an issue of rationality. It is a topic that carries with it frightening historical baggage and which is emotionally charged, regardless of how dispassionately one would like to approach it. I wish it was merely a question of numbers. I wish we could look at statistics and say, well, this reflects the statistics in Virginia's population -- we have achieved our goal.

But the fact is that it is a topic that touches very sensitive areas of our consciousness: our self-awareness, our perceptions of who we are, how we are seen, and how we relate to others. And the truth is that every time we speak of it, we not only are reporting on facts, but are changing our understanding of the issue of race and difference.

I greatly appreciate the administration's initiative to open a dialogue. But let us keep the dialogue open. Racism might be a question of morality. Diversity is not -- difference is a reality that is present even when we don't want it. If we are to continue this dialogue, we need to be aware of the kind of language we are using. Or should difference within minorities compel those who dissent to speak in whispers? Argue with me -- I appreciate a friendly brawl. Though a unified opinion might make things much easier, it is precisely in the appreciation of dissent where the acceptance of difference begins.