June 12, 2013

How College Turned Me Into an Indian


By John S. Rosenberg

Articles touting "diversity" often tell us more than they intend to, frequently by casual comments off the main topic or by what is not said at all. Three articles from the past few days provide good examples of the subtext being more interesting, and more revealing of the nuts and bolts of "diversity," than the points the articles intended to make.

Elissa Washuta's "How Much Indian Was I?, My Fellow Students Asked" in the Chronicle of Higher Education is a conventional expression of what I have called the c'est moi! defense of "diversity'-justified preferential treatment -- individuals offering their own success, and implicitly the sensitivity and wisdom on which their success is based, as justification for the preferential treatment they received.

Ms. Washuta's mother is one of the three Native Americans in Liberty Township, N.J. (the other two being Elissa and her brother), all enrolled members of Washington state's Cowlitz tribe. When she appeared at the University of Maryland to be interviewed for an honors scholarship, Ms. Washuta "worried that the interviewers were going to quiz me about my favorite Indian ceremonies. If they wanted me to speak in my native tongue, I would have to make something up on the spot."

Ms. Washuta provides a revealing glimpse of what is as widely known among college students as it is widely denied by administrators--that a racial rewards system is at work just about everywhere. Although her interview invitation "had said that this was an interview for a merit scholarship, with no mention of diversity," as soon as she walked into the honors building she "immediately noticed all the dark skin in the waiting room." She describes herself as "being on the fair side of plain Yoplait," but when she moved into the honors dorm she had to explain that "I'm not all white" because the other students insisted that merit money "never went to white kids." Merit grants, it appears, are often given according to the same "holistic" criteria as admissions.

Ms. Washuta writes that she "came into my own as a Native American in high school," although her Chronicle article strongly suggests her ethnic identity did not fully emerge until her college years when, she writes, "I threw myself into super-Indianness, taking both of the Native-studies courses offered by the university's anthropology department. I participated in a summer internship program for Native students and scored a part-time job in tribal relations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

By now you will have seen the irony. The justification for preferential treatment of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans is that others need to be exposed to their "difference." But Ms. Washuta was not so different when she arrived at College Park from New Jersey. It was only through her college experiences that she "became the Indian I had promised they were getting." Maryland, in short, didn't admit a "diverse" person; it created one.

Ms. Washuta is currently an academic counselor and lecturer in American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Chances are that she was pleased by the university's recent decision to require all students to take a course that has something to do with "diversity." Students can choose, the Seattle Times reports, "from among 400 and 500 courses that are already part of the curricula, such as Peasants in Politics, Class and Culture in East Asia, Gender and Spirituality and World Music." (Grammatical aside: the absence of the serial comma makes it impossible to tell whether the last two courses listed are "Gender" and "Spirituality and World Music" or "Gender and Spirituality" and "World Music.")

"The new policy, initiated by a group of mostly minority students," the article notes, "followed three failed attempts over the past 22 years to introduce changes meant to ensure that all graduating students know a little more about other cultures and people who differ from them than they did when they first arrived."

Left unstated was whether there will be any racial or ethnic enrollment requirements. If not, that would mean that Native Americans could fulfill the requirement by taking a course about Native Americans, blacks by taking a black history course, etc., and it is hard to see how such solipsistic choices would teach those students about "other cultures."

"Diversity," it is clear, does not come easily or naturally. Simply exposing students to others who are "different" obviously doesn't suffice. You can throw raw ingredients into a soup bowl, but you don't have soup until you cook it, and then it has to be force fed through required courses and workshops teaching "diversity" skills.

If "diversity" came naturally through spontaneous interaction among students who are "different," universities would not need extensive and expensive programs like the recently expanded diversity training workshops at the University of Minnesota:

The full certificate programs includes 10 workshops lasting three hours each on topics like race, disabilities, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.

"One of our central frames is that diversity is everybody's everyday work," [Office of Equity and Diversity Director of Education Anne] Phibbs said.

At the workshop, participants develop skills to work and communicate across differences, Phibbs said.

"Although many faculty and staff attend the workshops," OED is "trying to get more student voices."

Perhaps they should make enrollment a requirement.

(Photo: University of Maryland. Credit: UMD.)

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