Theory Teacher's Blog

Diverging from Diversity, or, in other words, “Subversity Act One!”

Earlier this week, the college where I teach honored me and one of my colleagues with “diversity action” awards in recognition of our contributions to campus life. My contributions this past year included, among other things, mentoring the black women student organization, helping to resolve a racially sensitive controversy on campus, and inviting guest speakers of Jamaican and Oromo ancestry to engage our students, not to mention, of course, the content of my scholarship and teaching. My colleague’s contribution was to raise awareness about the diversity of disability and multiple forms of intelligence by involving his students in collaborative projects with individuals with disability. I am humbled by the recognition, as I’m sure my colleague is too, but at the same time, it provoked me to think more deeply about the meaning of the word “diversity” and whether or not that’s how I conceptualize my aspirations. Given that I fancy myself a provocateur, wielding my weapons of sarcasm, irony, and dialectical reasoning to get my students to think outside the box, I came up with some other words to help me imagine an alternative to diversity, such as alterity and adversity, and even made up a few words that don’t actually exist, such as obversity and subversity. These made-up words might be translated as challenging, counterpoint, oppositional, dissenting, or insurrectionary.

When did the word “diversity” became so much a part of American culture that it became the unquestioned ideal — so unquestioned that it is now an essential component of college curricula throughout the country (the “D” requirement)? It certainly wasn’t the case in 1980 when Congress was still debating whether to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day and when most colleges required students to take not just one, but two, classes on the so-called “classics” of “western civilization.” A radical transformation took place in the 1990s, and consequently now most colleges require some form of “diversity” in their curricula instead of the old “western civ.” At the same time, corporations such as General Mills and Target began making “diversity” part of their corporate missions. Similarly, the Republican Party’s campaign strategy that once upon a time focused on what it called the “silent majority” (code for “white men”) under Presidents Nixon and Reagan changed significantly under President George W. Bush to become more ethnically “diverse,” especially with his famous attempt at a campaign speech in Spanish. Perhaps the most extreme example of what I’m talking about is something I just heard on the radio yesterday morning, that even some Klu Klux Klan members have recently begun re-branding their organization as “diverse” (according to this story on NPR.) Listening to the radio story, one can’t help but hold one’s chin in hand and wonder, if the Klan is no longer “racist,” then who is?… Is it not totally bizarre that two such different organizations as a liberal arts college and a white-supremacist organization might appropriate the same word to describe their aspirations? Language is a funny thing, as the meaning of words sometimes changes, used metaphorically to apply to so many different phenomena that they almost seem to lose meaning altogether.

But words matter. As teachers and college administrators, we use them to organize our classes. Museum curators use them to organize their exhibits. Corporations use them to organize their advertising as well as their hiring practices. Politicians use them to organize their campaigns. If diversity is the name of the game, then one can expect an effort to reach-out to different… um… different what? A long list of identity categories, both the sort of identities that I might proudly give to myself as well as the identities that others might maliciously or ignorantly give to me.

To illustrate my point, let’s take something really ordinary and commonplace such as the phrase that’s on the back of our dollar bills, e pluribus unum (translation: “out of many, one.”) The phrase might be interpreted by some to indicate that Americans have always celebrated their diversity, but this would be false. The phrase originally indicated the unity (not the diversity) of several states (the original 13 colonies) coming together to achieve an independent federal government with a centralized bank that could issue the paper money upon which the slogan is printed. As everyone knows from their high school history class, the unity of the “unum” in the e pluribus unum and the banking system that it subsequently unleashed was intensely debated in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist Papers.  But since then, it came to be used to mean something else, something vaguely about who and what America is. Some have interpreted the e pluribus unum through the metaphor of the melting pot, which is a curious phrase, often applied so widely that the metaphorical sense of “melting” is scarcely noted. After all, it takes considerable heat to melt something. The origin of this well-known phrase is chapter three of the American literary classic, Letters from an American Farmer, written in 1782 by a French traveler to America,  J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who imagined how the American experience would melt the (metaphorical) metal of various European ancestries into a new alloy in which the flaws of European culture are burned away. Over a century later, in 1908, Israel Zangwill wrote the play The Melting Pot, which imagines all European immigrants giving up their old cultures and becoming completely Americanized. There is something a little violent in all this melting.

What I think is fascinating is that people often use the e pluribus unum and melting pot metaphor for diversity when in fact this metaphor actually meant the exact opposite. The opposite of diversity, after all, is unity and sameness. And in the melting pot, all difference is melted away to transform individuals into a new man with a common destiny. Hence, in response to the “melting pot” metaphor, the “salad bowl” metaphor was coined to imagine ways that everyone can keep their unique cultural identities but still be American or something, whatever the pot or bowl is assumed to be. For instance, if we take the pot or bowl to be the “university” where I work, then what assumptions do we have about the “uni” that unites the diversity of its students and its curricula?

What is apparent in the e pluribus unum formulation is a rather ironic dialectic of opposite meanings. On the one hand, it means celebrating our differences (you’re OK, I’m OK, hip hip hooray). On the other hand, it means abandoning what makes us different and embracing what makes us the same. If we question “diversity” by drawing attention to this dialectic, does the term begin to unravel as a contradictory ideology that says one thing (a celebration of difference) but actually, underneath, implies its opposite (an assumption of sameness, or, at least, the assumption of a patriotic nationalism)? What seems to enable a celebration of diversity is the belief deep down that our differences ultimately don’t matter (materially speaking) quite as much as the sameness that binds us (whether we like it or not) to our situation. For example, whether you are black or white, Christian or Buddhist, you still have to pay your taxes and buy your bread with money issued by the Federal Reserve Bank (rather than by bartering, for instance.)

Point being, the assertion of “the thesis of diversity” implies its own antithesis (or obverse). That’s the dialectic. In other words, when Walt Whitman hears American singing about all of our infinite multiplicity (to cite a famous poem), it’s possible that his poetic verses of universal diversity signify also its problematic obverse within a universe filled with adversity in such a way that might reverse the subversion originally intended by his revolutionary verses against (or versus) an oppressive and limited world…. Or so thought Langston Hughes in the subtle reversals that he made through his allusion to (or re-versification of) Whitman’s verse.

Can we think of other words to use? Perhaps alterity rather than diversity? When we think of cultural difference through the conceptual lens of alterity rather than the conceptual lens if diversity, we begin to imagine alternatives to the status quo and changing things for the better (revolution, transformation, transfiguration, or simply an openness to experience and to difference) — the goal being a better way to be.

What if we organized an award or a class curriculum or a museum around adversity rather than diversity… or around alterity rather than identity?

Beneath the dialectic of diversity and unity (or difference versus sameness) that structures the ideology of our educational system, perhaps we can think beyond the Freudian “id” of identity and its symbolic language of diversity. How can we subvert the hegemonic symbolic order that dominates our imagination in a way that reveals the true beauty of our reality? As we critically reflect on our roles as teachers and students, perhaps we can begin to imagine ourselves studying at a “subversity” rather than at a nominally diverse university.

Act one:

The first provost of the subversity in my imagined historical drama might be the “sub-sub-librarian” who begins Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

Act two:

The current provost might be “subcomandante Marcos” of the Zapatistas.

Act three…

November 16, 2014 Posted by | teaching | Leave a comment