Diversity is not Your Business, Nor Mine, for that Matter

Premises of the following opinion: (a) we, the writer (I) and the reader(s) (you), were born to be equal (i.e., biologically homo Sapiens, regardless of the subspecies variation); (b) everything else we might identify with or be identified as is in flux; (c) things that we don’t have names for do exist.

In this spirit, I’d like to share with you my story with that which we colloquially call “diversity”.

Born and raised in Southeast China, I had spent most recent fifth of my life in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. More specifically, in higher education institutions. And I didn’t meet diversity till I sat down and really dug into some literature on educational equity for my degree program. Don’t get me wrong: as you would expect, my surroundings in each university that I studied and worked at were never homogeneous: I was always visibly different from my peers, my colleagues, and strangers I met in the cafeteria. Only I never realized the reason(s) for which you might consider we were different; before I really studied up on the concept of equity in education, I thought we, you and I were different because we had different upbringing, different mannerism, different diets, and different preferences of drinks. I thought we were visibly different by choice, a byproduct of free will.

How absurdly naïve I was then. Now I have learned: As it currently stands, I’m a cis-gender able-bodied Chinese (or foreign) woman at a relatively young age. I’m privileged to have obtained advanced education, access to life-supporting resources; secured in regularities in life, but not bored out of my skin or trapped by hazardous relationships. Regardless of how those identities lay with me, they are what you made recognition of me through, first and foremost. Also come with those recognitions in you awareness are typologies of those identities: in other words, the ghosts of the time in the past, falsified in your memorie(s), the never-real image of reality (Hats off to Foucault, also to many who felt as such but didn’t have, or care for a name for it)

Willingly coming to this land as an outsider, I’m prepared to be a wonderer of this land forever (or as long as Mr. T allows). As to typologies that come with your recognitions of me, out of my respect to the lived experience of many people who shaped and were shaped in those typologies, I take them in as gracefully as I can: Not because it was natural, granted, or bona fide (seriously, a phrase in a dead language for a genuine human feeling?), because I wanted to be a better self by the brunt of your minds, and some fights were just not worth having.

Not diversity.

Looking back at the history of this word in your colloquialism, mere decades have gone passed since the discussion. First wave of feminism, in theories and actions, left the long-lasting effect of rising from oppression. Class, race, ethnicity, political ideology, religion, anything where we feel the difference. The Equal Rights Act is merely a reminder with some nails in it to extend your memory spam. Fundamentally, it gave a name to that which had no physical shapes: between you and me, something is different; many such “somethings” accumulate and diversity emerges. Because diversity doesn’t belong to you, or me, it has no typology. Try picturing diversity, you are only thinking about a fossil it left behind, a distorted image of what has left existence.

So don’t talk about higher education as a diverse workforce: diversity can’t be described in a present tense. Pick two time points of a university, pick two departments that you work in at length, gather the fossils (e.g., percentage of women, women of color, women of color who are raising a family, women of color who are in leadership positions, women of color who are true leaders of team, etc), and then tell me which is more diverse. Diversity, like any other things that were lived and experienced, left artifacts like fossils along the way: how higher education as a workplace was ten years ago, and how higher education was yesterday. Diversity is a motion picture: throughout time in higher education, the constellation of things individuals differ from one another keeps changing. With few exceptions, those changes, most likely were instilled incrementally, one mentor, one collaboration, one initiative, one history refresher course at a time.

So no, I don’t mind that when you see me, you have typologies coming up in your mind that I couldn’t imagine in a million years; I don’t mind that you find me funny or cute when I’m most serious and trying to contribute to the work; I mind that you are a repeated offender who didn’t bother remembering my preferred pronouns; I mind that you cite out-of-context quotes from “diverse people” to shut me down when I raise my concern of your selective attention to issues of equity. I mind that you think diversity is a glass-half-full issue, about which you are always happy to be optimistic.

Ultimately, diversity is an idea, which states that any “one”, one individual, one group, one attribute, one way of thinking and doing, one state of being, is only meaningful in perspective of all. It’s a value system that states certainty of one is merely a depleted image of what could have been. Diversity doesn’t look/sound/taste any particular one way; it’s the belief that allows each one to embrace alternatives, switch gears, make transitions, improve, and create, knowing that all is welcome.

No one owns diversity, therefore, because it’s an idea only alive through never-ending practice of every one in all. This is also why diversity is (or should be) fundamental in higher education: development and excellence never come from complacency of “one”, and can’t thrive where any particular ones drown out the rest of all for self-perseverance.


Yue Adam Shen serves as a Research and Data Analyst at Oregon State University. You may contact her via email at adam.shen@oregonstate.edu

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