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Negotiating Diversity’s Discontents

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Political battles have been waged between advocates and detractors of diversity and inclusion in higher education since the beginning of the diversity movement in the early 1990s. In this chapter, Betsy Huang traces the discursive forms of backlash against diversity initiatives in recent decades, such as “zero-sum diversity,” the “diversity ceiling,” “white fragility,” and “disprivilege.” She argues that the persistent pushback has eroded the potency of the word diversity as a term of aspiration and as an instrument of positive social change. She offers critical analyses of the fallacies that undergird the backlash and suggests proactive strategies to restore the meaning and the ethical imperative of diversity and inclusion.

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  1. 1.

    For a reading of white anger in Gran Torino, see Kim 2013 and Senega 2009. For an analysis of the resonances between Falling Down, voter rage, and Donald Trump’s campaign, see Timberg 2016.

  2. 2.

    Dilbert strips that satirize diversity programs can be located with a Google search. For the one posted on the white nationalist website, see Stormfront.

  3. 3.

    The long history of state-sponsored discrimination against non-whites in the US is well documented by legal historians and critical race scholars over many decades now. Any attempt to provide a brief bibliography on the subject would barely scratch the surface. That said, some excellent and accessible volumes on the subject include those of sociologist Bonilla-Silva (2003), Omi and Winant (2015) and the acclaimed documentary series, Race: The Power of an Illusion (2003).

  4. 4.

    Two recent documentations of the glacial paces of change despite aggressive diversity strategic plans are the diversity reports published by corporate giants Google and Facebook. After their initial releases of reports in 2014, reflecting the dismal states of diversity in their workforces, each has made almost no gains in diversification despite their repeated declarations of commitments and efforts. Facebook’s July 2016 report shows that only 2% of its US workforce is black and only 4% are Hispanic, and that among its technical workers, the numbers are even worse: 1% is black, 3% Hispanic. Facebook’s explanation, according to CNN Money, is that “Facebook places some blame on its slow movement on the skills gap, noting that only 1 in 4 U.S. high schools teach computer science. To help combat that, it announced a new commitment to give $15 million to over the next five years.” The explanation, which focuses on skills rather than a careful review of past hiring practices, is telltale of the institutional unwillingness to look to the past to correct the present. Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Global Director of Diversity, shifts the attention to data such as those that exposing the damning evidence of racial bias in application reviews. Data is certainly a better approach and perhaps a more effective one. But even Williams glosses over what the data reveals: the institutional history of biased hiring and promotions that produced such a homogenous workforce in the first place. See O’Brien 2016.

  5. 5.

    These protests and sit-ins were prompted by the national debates around the disturbing numbers of deaths of black men at the hands of the police and the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, and precipitated by racist and bias incidents experienced by students of color, sit-ins, teach-ins, dialogues, walkouts, and lists of demands were deployed by students and their faculty and staff allies, led largely by students of color. For a summary of the protests mounted across college campuses in 2014–2015, see this roundup in Wong and Green 2016.

  6. 6.

    Friedersdorf 2016. Friedersdorf elaborates on his analysis of the situation thus:

    Insofar as campus concepts like safe spaces, microaggressions, and claims of trauma over minor altercations spread from activist culture to campus culture, the powerful will inevitably make use of them. Where sensitivity to harm and subjective discomfort are king, and denying someone “a safe space” is verboten, folks standing in groups, confrontationally shouting out demands, will not fare well. When convenient, administrators will declare them scary and unfit for the safe space, exploiting how verboten it is to challenge anyone who says they feel afraid.

    In cases like this one, it won’t matter that one of the least scary experiences in the world is walking into a university administration building at 7 a.m., well-rested and ready for work, to be greeted by a bunch of exhausted 18-year-old Ohio State University students groggily looking up from the corner where they curled up with college hoodies as pillows. After years of reporting on occupations like this one, I’ve never heard of even one case of a college staff member of administrator coming away with even a scratch. Yet in the name of preserving “safe space,” these protesters were evicted.

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Huang, B. (2018). Negotiating Diversity’s Discontents. In: Gertz, S., Huang, B., Cyr, L. (eds) Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education and Societal Contexts. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-319-70174-5

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-319-70175-2

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