what is to constitute that a conversation is “about promoting diversity”?

My question for today: is an academic discussion of the production of diversity in its poetic and political contexts the discussion that “we” should have about our diversity practices and how they might evolve in the coming years?

Powers-that-be have asked our department to produce a “Diversity Report” on our practices “promoting diversity.”

Not that there is anything wrong about that—though we may not have produced such a report without of formal request from the Powers.  The Powers also told us that earlier reports were not adequate.  We were asked to discuss our practices and propose changes in these practices over the next two years.  This post is one of my statements in this discussion.  Students and colleagues are welcome to comment, in the spirit of transparency.

Famously, discussions about “diversity” are difficult (Lin 2007; Pollock 2004, 2008).  At some point in the discussion someone will ask: what “counts” as diversity: LGBT status? Disability status?   Others may whisper: Religion? Age?  National origin? Nationality? One of our colleague in the College once argued that, as the only Skinnerian behavior modification person on the faculty, he, a white male, might be the most “diverse” person there.

There is a “gotcha” side to expanding what is to count (what should be quantified) as diversity.  There is a powerful political consensus here that is not to be trifled with, and questions about expanding the categories are soon set aside.

A more disrupting argument is made by those who argue that discussions of “diversity” masks the political imperatives that let to affirmative action policies in favor ed federally labeled “minorities” (Guinier 2003) as well as the transfer of the definition of what is to count, and how, from national polities (and the courts) to local polities with little accountability except to themselves (and their public relation departments).  This line of argumentation will also be set aside, but not without some discomfort,

In any event, the reports of the past few years (some of which I wrote as department chair) have mostly emphasized the counting of faculty and students from protected federal categories.  I insisted a few years ago that dissertation topics might be another index of our efforts at “promoting diversity.”  This allowed me to talk about a research concern with “disability” that does not fit neatly in any effort to quantify diversity.

However, as I made the point about dissertations, I wondered whether I was being innovative or sarcastic.  In the long history of affirmative action, as I understand it (and this is not my academic field), the issue mostly concerned issues of membership and blocks on membership.  Reporting on numbers of “minorities” in a polity could then be used as shorthand evidence that blocks still existed, or had been removed.  In recent years however there has been much debate on whether removing formal blocks is enough.

This brings me to my own activity as an academic anthropologist and university professor.  I know I am expected by many to reflect on how my activities might block this or that diverse person—and not only when I sit on an admissions committee, or grade papers.  I must wonder how some of my claims to diversity may advantage me, or how I should keep others among my claims in various closets.  I might wonder on the powers that make some of my claims advantageous, and others dangerous—to myself and others.  I might wonder how a diversity trait is differentiated from another (how many skin colors? Where is the boundary between “light” and “dark” skins? How many genders? Etc.).  I might wonder whether all this is good (bad?) to think, or to eat…

Actually, of course, I teach courses about all this—in relation to education, family, technology, education.  The anthropologists among my readers will have recognized the quote in the last sentence (Lévi-Strauss 1963 [1962]: 89).  Arguably, anthropology is the social science founded on the recognition that the ongoing production of diversity is fundamental to humanity.  One might wonder whether Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan would have been possible without Margaret Mead (1949)—or whether Mead, and the institutionalization of anthropology, is part of the same movement with de Beauvoir and Friedan against earlier evolutionary and biological understandings, and the politics derived from them.

My question for today: is an academic discussion of the production of diversity in its poetic and political contexts the discussion that “we” should have about our diversity practices and how they might evolve in the coming years?


Guinier, Lani. “Admissions Rituals as Political Acts: Guardians at the Gates of Our Democratic Ideals.” Harvard Law Review, 117, 1, 1-491. 2003

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