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Rethinking diversity: part III

This is the last in what has turned out to be a three-part critical analysis of diversity and its role on campus. Last Tuesday, I looked at the idea of diversity itself and whether the usual indicators of race, religion and geography really make a difference when it comes to life perspectives. Additionally, Philip Mooney wrote a piece on Thursday concerning the efficacy of cultural student organizations at encouraging cross-cultural dialogues and ethnic integration. This final installment sets a critical eye to the implementation of diversity programming on campus and the question of whether or not diversity can be compulsory.

The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, the Carl A. Fields Center and numerous other outreach groups on campus seem to believe there is some good in mandating that freshmen participate in formal dialogues about topics of identity. They certainly have every right to believe in this method. It would be foolish to hold that Princeton exists without racism, sexism or homophobia. These campus groups see problems and want to act to ameliorate or end them in the best way they can think of. Unfortunately, there are three major reasons why a compulsory method of understanding and integration is ineffective.

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The first is timing. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and families which have molded their beliefs over the past 20 years. They have made friends, seen their home communities and formed their perceptions of others for over a decade. To freshmen, mandatory discussions about diversity seem to last an eternity when in reality they only take a few hours. Attempting to reverse years of upbringing, emotional association and experience with a few hours of talking just isn’t going to cut it. In order to sensitize students to other perspectives and break down unfounded prejudices one needs time, and a lot of it.

Fortunately, four years is a quite a long time (although for juniors like me it’s starting to seem increasingly short). Not only is it a long time, but college is also a very special time because of its novelty. It is in times of the greatest change that we are most susceptible to a readjustment of our beliefs. If students are confronted every day with people who challenge or even destroy their preconceived notions about a particular race, religion or sexual orientation, there will almost certainly be significant modification of their prejudice. The most effective way to facilitate understanding is through example and experience, things which are difficult to achieve using the current discussion system.

The second problem with mandating dialogue concerns the actors. When one is growing up and forming a picture of the world, the people that are most influential are one’s parents, family and friends. Indeed, for most of our formative years, the words and deeds of our parents are equivalent to divine truth. The people who help shape our feelings and knowledge of others are often very close to us and we often give what they have to say more weight than we would to someone without this history. This is the second pitfall for diversity advocates on campus. No one on campus, not peer advisors, Outdoor Action leaders, residential college advisers and especially not the administration, commands the same level of emotional capital as freshmen’s families and friends from home. It’s hard to argue that a few conversations with complete strangers can hope to impact students as much as interactions with people with whom the students have shared an intimate connection in the past.

There is hope in the collegiate system. Although our connections with our homes are strong when we first arrive on campus, we quickly form extraordinarily strong bonds with people on campus. I’ve often joked with my own friends and freshmen about how obnoxiously fast we all get to know one another. Even now, scarcely six weeks into the semester, we’ve already formed remarkable relationships with our peers. It is through these relationships, ones which hopefully bring students together from a range of backgrounds and beliefs, that we can most effectively reform perspectives and promote diversity.

The final issue with compulsory awareness is the psychology which underlies it. People don’t like being told what to do. Period. And they certainly don’t want to feel as though they are being forced to be accepting and tolerant, especially when that might fly in the face of everything they’ve known and felt thus far. By planting the idea in people’s heads that they must be sensitive to others, you’ve already damned the attempt. A reformation of perspective does not occur by storm but rather by subtlety. Allow students to interact with one another with no reminder of their race, sex or other identities and we will ourselves realign our beliefs into what makes sense to us. It is only when our perspectives grow organically and resonate in our own hearts that the goals of diversity are fulfilled.

Nathan Mathabane is a Geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at nmathaba@princeton.edu.

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