Wheeler: Defining True Diversity
By Katie Wheeler, Contributing Columnist
Published on Wednesday, April 25, 2012
The other day, a prospective student asked me about diversity at Dartmouth. I recalled some statistics that the Admissions Office had once thrown at me. Dartmouth students, it said, come from all 50 states and from over 50 foreign countries, with almost 30 percent being students of color and 60 percent receiving financial aid. Yet the seemingly simple question about diversity left me perplexed and doubtful. Could I really say that these statistics reflected true diversity? What is true diversity, anyway?
I look at the idealized Dartmouth culture and wonder how divergent perspectives and customs can be accepted, appreciated and encouraged within it. And I look at Dartmouth’s various affinity groups that celebrate diversity — Native Americans at Dartmouth, the Pan Asian Community, the Afro-American Society and so on. While these groups undoubtedly promote diversity, I find myself wondering whether they unintentionally cultivate some insularity among campus communities unless the Dartmouth community as a whole works to promote inter-community dialogue.
Because we go to a school where many ethnicities, cultures and economic backgrounds are represented, we tend to think that we are more accepting and open-minded individuals. We would like to believe that we abstain from discrimination and that we wholeheartedly embrace new ideas, cultures and people. Yet I have come to notice that many of us fail to truly become close with those who are radically different from ourselves. Sometimes it appears that we retreat into social circles and organizations that insulate us from people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and races. Although many of us deem such differences to be irrelevant in the relationships we form, we often allow these very differences to define us and the way we view others.
Despite what the Admissions Office tells us, Dartmouth is not a truly diverse campus. The notion of diversity cannot be reduced to a statistic. The Admissions Office reported that in the Class of 2015, 8.3 percent of students are African-American, 15.5 percent are Asian-American, 7 percent are Latino, 3.4 percent are Native American and 0.6 percent are multiracial. Yet these numbers are somewhat meaningless. True diversity is not represented by the number of students of a certain race, the number of affinity groups on campus or the number of students belonging to a specific social class. True diversity is measured by the interactions between these different students. It is not enough to simply coexist with our peers of diverse backgrounds here at Dartmouth. True diversity means really getting to know those who are different from us and genuinely making an effort to understand and appreciate foreign perspectives.
In my experience, interactions of true diversity at Dartmouth are much more limited than we would like to admit. Often, without really realizing it, we isolate ourselves with people whose backgrounds are very similar to our own. Of course, people of the same socioeconomic background or race can still have a variety of perspectives, but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we have achieved anything close to true diversity. Naturally, many of us are most comfortable with the familiar, are quick to judge those of a different background on a superficial basis and dislike it when our ways of life are questioned. Sometimes, in celebrating our own cultures and perspectives, we become overly immersed in them and, consequently, fail to appreciate and relate with those from other backgrounds. In order to embrace diversity, we must become aware of these tendencies and must push ourselves to communicate and form relationships with those who are different from us.
As students, we must abandon our assumptions about what it means to be of a particular race or socioeconomic background. We must be eager to learn about and celebrate each other. Dartmouth should make an even greater effort to supplement its cultural affinity groups with facilitated interaction between these groups and engage a broader sector of campus in these conversations. We must venture out of our comfort zones and make an active effort to meet different people and have new experiences. We can no longer hide behind the guise of numbers and statistics. We must work toward becoming a diverse, accepting and knowledgeable student body.