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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Picturing Diversity

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I’ve found there to be something deeply perturbing with the Carleton idea of diversity since I first set foot on campus. I attribute this initially to the lack of people of color. I grew up in a racially diverse school system. The first time I was part of the majority race at my school was 11th grade. This gave me the mistaken impression that something like half of the United States had skin coloration that didn’t resemble a pale peach. Carleton didn’t reflect that. People didn’t look the way I was used to. People didn’t speak the way I was used to. People weren’t the way I was used to. It took me about a year to figure out that Carleton wasn’t actually a bastion of racism, but was in fact simply more representative of the US population. It took me a few more months to realize that there was racism here nonetheless.

When someone asks me what my picture of diversity is, I picture a warehouse. It’s located on 10th and Osage in Denver, Colorado. It has grey walls and weeds growing out front. Sometimes there’s graffiti that hasn’t been removed yet. I spent a good portion of my adolescence working there. My parents owned it. It was part and parcel of the dying-breed of family business they presided over. My friends and I were often called in to help fin- ish big jobs or pick up what the warehouse workers didn’t have time for. Ask me about diversity and I’ll picture white suburban girls, African American inner-city teenagers, and wife-beater-clad laborers bent together over cardboard and equipment in the dust after school was out. I’ll picture the warehouse manager snarling next to his radio blaring Glenn Beck. I’ll picture side-stepping human feces and heroin needles on the loading dock alongside people with different skin, accents, childhoods, and cultures. The language was coarse. The jokes were raunchy. The work was hard. I picture this place as diverse because it didn’t matter. By the end of a long shift we had all sweated, groaned, and sometimes bled alongside one another.

I once invited one of my activist friends to come work with us. She went to a different school, a suburban one with a mostly white population. She would have fit in well at Carleton. Her idea of diversity was the demise of the constructs perpetuated by the white male overlords that currently sat at the helm of society. She and I had engaged in a number of constructive conversations and she had certainly challenged many of my pre-conceived notions. I took a great deal of pleasure in watching the warehouse challenge hers. I had expected her to twinge at the lan- guage. What I wasn’t expecting was for her to actually twinge at being surrounded by people with a different skin color, a different dress, a different culture than hers. Her discomfort was clear. I’d seen her in physically arduous situations before, but this level of nervousness was new. She never came back to work there.

Perhaps my friend was racist. Perhaps she wasn’t. Her language and ideology were both far too well-groomed to have a frank conversation on the subject. She was, however, understandably hesitant to insert herself into an alien situation. After nearly three years here, I have realized that this is exactly what bothers me about Carleton. We are a collection of mostly white, mostly wealthy, almost exclusively sheltered young people who are completely separated from the ugliest evidence of the need for diver- sity. Most of us recognize this. We struggle with it. Then we go back to our sheltered work in our sheltered school and eventually return to our sheltered lives. We fiercely debate issues that most of us have never really touched, or conversely have never touched us. We are fastidious about our words, our ideas, our privilege, but what good is all of that when our very existence at this school perpetuates separation? We champion the other side without ever really knowing it.

So what else are we to do? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have a few strategies. Loosen your grasp on your ideals, first of all. Listen before you correct next time someone says something you find offensive. Sometimes you have to bend to your work and just listen to Glenn Beck on the manager’s radio. Sometimes an offensive word or view might just be an artifact of a different upbringing. Shaming someone for that closes off the possibility of mutual understanding. Language has power. So do ideas. But there are limits to their importance. An inappro- priate joke can’t put a bullet in a teenager walking home from a convenience store. A man who is frightened of somebody differ- ent from him can. That’s why we need to focus on our commonali- ties, not our differences. Censorship and shame only silences someone into conforming to the established ideal of sensitivity. The pervading mantra shouldn’t be “seek first to speak sensitively,” it should be “seek first to understand.” We are all smart and strong enough to have those conversations. We are Carleton students, after all.

As for you, do yourself a favor. Over spring break go to the part of town where the skin colors are different. Find some- place where you don’t feel safe. Talk to someone you would never approach normally. Think about who scares you and why, then rebel against that. Seek out the other side. Explore it. Get to know its inhabitants. Don’t view this through any lens. Don’t see the constructions. Don’t see the society. Certainly don’t worry about the danger. See the people. See the patterns. Then bring what you have learned back to Carleton and hope that people listen. That’s how we beat this.

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