Diversity conversations face barriers

Puget Sound has been attempting to tackle issues of diversity, conversation and inclusion in both academic and interpersonal settings. Organizations and publications have tried to breach the subject, but setbacks are not uncommon, and are sometimes hostile.
In a recent issue of The Trail, students were asked for “The Weekly Log” if they thought Puget Sound needs more diversity. There was online controversy and negative reaction regarding the representation of the students who responded. The perception of these “white” students was called into question in a post on the Facebook.
In a letter to Wetlands about diversity concerns, negative comments were left online claiming that the writer was purposefully separating herself from the campus community. “Quit whatever endeavor you start whenever you can get a single ear to believe that your failure is rooted in systematic racism…if you spew enough bile, you’ll find that you’re ostracized anywhere you go,” read the comment, under the authorship of “Father of U.P.S. student.”
“The unfortunate thing that happened was [that] you have folks that have presented their own narrative, and used social media as the mechanism for discussion…it’s not even presented in any sort of ‘safe space’—there are no ground rules, there’s no initial dialogue about what brings people to a conversation,” Czarina Ramsay, director of Multicultural Student Services, said.
“We have a tendency to look at things at surface value, and…attribute our own interpretations or validations—and then validations that come with those interpretations,” Ramsay said.
Engaging in conversation involves more than just reexamination of an individual’s worldview. Michael Benitez, Jr., Chief Diversity Officer and Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, discussed starting points for breaching these subjects at Puget Sound.
“The first element about understanding diversity in the context of higher education is understanding the history and facing history, where a lot of folks don’t want to go because we’re in 2014,” Benitez said. “But without having that history, we really get lost in the contemporary situation…that we’re in today.”
Benitez gave examples of two major groups that have been excluded from societal participation in American history: women and non-white individuals.
“This is critical in understanding what hundreds of years of exclusion from participation before we get to now means in who was able to create wealth, who was able to cultivate representation and capital, and who wasn’t allowed to enter decision making spaces,” Benitez said. “If we don’t understand that first and foremost, then we don’t understand diversity in the context of higher [education].”
“Diversity” as a term was not as politically charged until Supreme Court Case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. In terms of higher education, this information becomes critically important as it gives insight into how language changes over time, and how discussion of terms continues to grow as schools, society and individuals use these words.
As such, a history of discussion followed terms as they applied first to women with the suffrage movement, then to non-white individuals.
But these two groups have one major difference, which is the numerical division of the masses.
Male and female representation, from a cisgender viewpoint, is around half-and-half within this nation. Minority groups in predominantly white cultures are divided in discussion between various ethnic and racial representation, and that makes representation more difficult for these individuals.
“They’re very small percentages of the broader societal demographic,” Benitez said.
“The possibility of…getting into the spaces is a lot harder—not only in representation, but also in how institutions…attempt to understand how much diversity is really needed, although it really shouldn’t matter. But the reality is, our history tells us: ‘it has to matter.’”
In the present day, Puget Sound has tried to take steps to maximize inclusion and increase the voices of diversity to marginalized groups, creating spaces for conversation and information.
However, even with projects such as the KNOW proposal, there have been concerns that interpersonal discussion leads to exclusion, and that voices will be overlooked.
In combating these concerns, some students, such as senior Jenna Gerdsen, have stepped up their voices on campus. Gerdsen was the director of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, performed for the Senior Theatre Festival.
The play addresses Asian-American identity, topics of race and privilege and cultural representation in the arts.
“During one of our rehearsals for Yellow Face, we had a dialogue concerning race…and one of the actors didn’t quite know what ‘white privilege’ meant,” Gerdsen said.
“By explaining and illustrating that concept in everyday experiences, we were able to enlighten him, and we were able to level the cast in terms of multicultural competency.”
Through initiatives such as KNOW, and through proposed overlays that allow professors to more clearly engage students in conversations, these discussions can become more prevalent around the University.
Privileged and marginalized individuals will be able to discuss more fully their personal discourse in order to receive and give.
“We all come here with different experiences and narratives that play out…our privileged and marginalized identities in a number of ways,” Ramsay said. “And I think for those that are coming from histories…more on the margins, they’re asking for recognition…for compassion…from access to the table, to the classroom…and respect.”
For those coming from privileged backgrounds, one of the important aspects of creating a diverse and supportive campus community is creating an awareness of privilege and using it to support marginalized individuals.
“[It] ranges from acting in response to [marginalization], acknowledging it—it can be anything,” Ramsay said.
One issue that is a deterrent to discussion is an unwillingness to admit ignorance on the part of people from backgrounds where racial, gender and/or sexual diversity were not present. In conversation, people are not comfortable with putting ignorance out as a part of their background, because doing so requires vulnerability.
“Marginalized voices also need to be okay with a respectful and civil dialogue about the ignorance and the lack of knowing with respect to students who are coming into a shared environment…where now they have to understand what ‘difference’ is,” Benitez said.
“Part of that silence comes from the fear of, ‘What if I say something wrong?’” Gerdsen said.
“And I think that’s a big problem too. I don’t think responses have to be statements; I think responses can be questions…A simple question can really advance the conversation forward.”
Individuals seeking discussion within an academic setting can provide insight, questions and perspectives for everyone around them.
Through collective agreement to foster dialogue, Puget Sound can become a source of narratives to be shared for the sake of everyone’s education, regardless of individual identity.
“We need to be able to normalize conversations of comfort and discomfort around these issues without personalizing them in a way that we shut down self and [others]…there is a necessary conviction behind engaging these dialogues where folks are going to be challenged, and that needs to be okay. But our role shouldn’t be to change each other – our role should be to engage these dialogues of curiosity, co-implication and exchange…that are critical and allow us to look at as many perspectives as possible, including the privileged and minoritized experience,” Benitez said.