The problem with diversity as a “nice to have”

On the first day of #RNCinCLE, US Representative Steve King from Iowa, posed this question on an MSNBC panel,

“”I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about, where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

To state the obvious, “other categories of people” meant ‘non-whites’. Many argued he was making the case for white supremacy. While he avoided directly saying “white”, choosing the presumably less inflammatory “Western” and ‘European’ qualifiers, the argument he was making was still clear to most of us: historically, white people contributed more to the world, non-whites have contributed less. But just how did he reach this conclusion and feel confident enough to (start to) debate it on national television?

I am reminded of this African Proverb:

“Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

All across the world, we are still in the process of correcting our histories with new stories and new narratives, inclusive of the perspectives of the “lions” of our world. But sometimes it is an absolute uphill battle. A great example of this is the 2015 controversy in which a mother of a high school student in Texas pointed out a Texan social studies textbook that had rewritten history so that “slaves” were instead called “workers”. To those who lack an understanding of the power and impact of this change in semantics — “workers” could easily be compatible to the political idea that black people worked under the guidance of a benevolent white enslaver. “Workers” is not problematic like “the enslaved” is. “Workers” is a softening of past wrongs, is able to operate under the assumption of political neutrality, and absurdly side-steps the very elemental fact of slavery: a system of forcible labor, and the very genesis of institutionalized racism. Among many other things, “workers” also removes one of the heaviest deficits of the legacy of western civilization (if we’re keeping score, like Steve King is), and these types of historical erasures allow many to submit to a very rosy picture of the contributions of those from “Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.” I imagine the Texas State Board of Education, viewing their track changes of history as they submit new educational resources into schools, like Lady Macbeth at the mirror, shouting “Out, damned spot!”.

And we do have many new stories and excellent scholarship to address the erasures (like those happening in Texas secondary schools) and to amend the narrow conversation on who is being credited with shaping world history, but Steve King isn’t reading widely, and his selective understanding of history is unfortunately supported by our Westernized educational system.

And let’s be real. We can drag him and call him uneducated, a fool, another aberration. More likely, he’s another product of an elite education, and his resume reads like a tour of elite institutions (like the House of Representatives, for one). I’ve had conversations very much like this in college where I’ve been in the minority defending the contributions of non-Western/non-white folk to civilization. One of these conversations was initiated after I told a friend I was taking a Black Studies course (Africana Cinema with the notoriously rigorous Professor Jackson at Pomona; it was hugely impactful in better informing my worldview, and I am so thankful for her brilliance). He essentially said that those types of courses were not worth his tuition money. He was not alone in believing this.

In the core General Education classes I took in college, like “Questions of Civilization” and Philosophy, I might have learned about a couple of non-white contributors. The problem with that is it’s very easy for a student to unconsciously reach the conclusion that because non-white contributions have not been included in the syllabus or allocated much time in the class, that non-whites have not contributed much (in volume and in value) to these conversations or to these core subject matter. In school, diversity in learning was still a “nice to have”, not a requirement. These types of courses (while still important, even in their limitations) continue to be labeled “Philosophy”, and not “Western Philosophy”, as if to assume the place of a properly vetted and completed canon. And professors who could name-check an approved non-white contributor got an extra pat on the back (note: definitely not saying professors are fully responsible for blocking. There are other politics in education and in academic publishing at play as well).

Well, folks… this is what happens when diversity is a “nice to have.” Among many of us, we have brilliant, hardworking people like Steve King — but with Steve King blinders on — who are given lots of power to shape our world. Much like American neighborhoods, our general education is segregated from our “other” education. You have to make the effort to wander out (or you have to know someone) to understand the value of an Asian-American studies course, recognize the legitimate impact of Malcolm X and why his words resonate so strongly today (this doesn’t mean you have have to agree with all of his words; I don’t, but I recognize the legitimate hurt that continue to inform them), or study religion from a text that’s written by a non-white theologian (which is particularly valuable if we understand that part of theology is biography).

Diversity* isn’t simply a value-add. In terms of educational resources, it’s a fundamental part of developing how we understand the world. Proper integration of diverse educational resources is a critical part of reshaping, and re-evaluating our normative (Western) world views and our shared white gaze. Our aim in diversity and wider conversations on history, government, and philosophy (and other core subjects that impart knowledge of ideologies) should be informed by the recognition that very often, the narrative comes from the hunter.

*To be specific, by “diversity”, I mean 2 things: 1. The integration and recognition of non-white historical figures with a more rigorous understanding of their impact in these fields, and 2. The integration of perspectives in these core subjects that are critical of a normative/Western/white gaze. Also, when I say “Western”, I mean to talk about a historical context and setting in majority-white nations which produced work largely from white experiences. “Western” doesn’t always feel precise when we’re talking about contemporary things since a lot of non-whites are pretty Westernized. An historically established Western gaze in the development of our core educational subjects gave way to a pattern of defaulting to the white gaze, which is limiting us all.

see also: “Have Our Distorted World Maps Fostered Poor Political Attitudes?” from ~2010