The diversity trap: Bondage by another name

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales
I have grown tired of praising diversity as if it was something of which to be proud, something we accomplish. Diversity is. We live in a very diverse world. Praising the essential and historical fact of diversity is as cheering the enormity of the force of gravity.
Diversity is not an end in itself. If we did not live in a prejudiced society, in a prejudiced world, diversity would be the natural result of our choices. But in our society, our choices are tempered and conditioned by those prejudices and by the way we have overcome them or not.
Diversity is neither the solution nor the problem. Exposure to difference helps to reduce prejudice. And that is undoubtedly good. I love my neighborhood. It is very diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation. There is interesting homogeneity in two areas: income and political leanings. The first we chuck to a capitalist society. The second, to the increasing segregation by political affiliation. It is not a coincidence but a choice that people like me live where I live. We seek that diversity because we have known it and like it. Many of my neighbors do international work of one sort or another and have lived in foreign countries. We do not see someone different in a value scale. In our case, the differences around us continue to enrich us but are not exactly earth shattering.
I much rather live in my very diverse ‘hood because it would suck to live in an Afro-Cubans-only neighborhood, despite knowing that the cities around are full of people of all sorts.
In our society, the persistent segregation of our neighborhoods is bad and diversity would be a good accomplishment because the current state is not a chance occurrence but the direct consequence of a studious and meticulously implemented segregation; and because our neighborhoods do not reflect the diversity that IS, but the prejudiced and exploitative circumstances that have been. Then, the low quality schools in poor minority ‘hoods lead to fewer high school graduates and so on and so forth… and that is the route to a non-diverse leadership class.
Diversity is good in our institutions of higher learning, the mantra goes, because our students will face a diverse world and job market and dealing with the complexities of a diverse environment beforehand will prepare them for it. Do notice, before you think this is a perfectly good and moral argument, that this is expressed in the context of finding legitimate rationales for inclusion of minorities, that is, for creating the conditions that would actually permit minorities – i.e. blacks, Latinos, Native Americans – to enter and remain on those institutions. For instance, defending affirmative action programs. Therefore, let us do a bit of linguistic deconstruction: “our students” then means “white students.” Minorities are props of sorts that prepare “our students” for the real theater of the outside world. Minority students are the equivalent of training wheels.
Diversity is not good. Diversity is. It is the way the world is and, in particular, our American society. We keep telling ourselves it is good because that’s how we assuage our guilt for the centuries of exploitation and how we justify giving them a however small slice of the pie.
Minorities appear as the diversifying factor. In culinary terms, we are the spice that colors things up, makes them tastier. There is a normalcy, there is a standard, and there is a society of which minorities are a sort of appendix. An appendix that, since it can’t be extirpated, needs to be integrated, maneuvered, found a place.
That is why the idea of busing white kids around to diversify formerly segregated black schools risked a true reenactment of the civil war – the practicalities were less than desirable, truth be told.
This focus on diversity leads to other such trappings. Here comes the mea culpa: I confess my guilt for commission, omission and the other three forms of sin that exist. I have caroled the praises of diversity a million times in order to demand the rights people of color should enjoy…by a function of being breathing human beings. But, was I actually demanding or was I just partaking on this new bondage that requires us to prove ourselves useful in order to have access to what should be our right?
The various rationales for encouraging diversity depend on the audience. For instance, we make the “business case to end health disparities” – those pesky statistics keep showing that minorities are stubbornly worst off health wise than their white counterparts, at all ages, at all income brackets. So, we tell business leaders that they should be concerned about that because minorities will soon be the majority of the workforce, and unhealthy people are a bigger toll on their company’s health insurance expending.
We also discuss, with the best of intentions and a hand in our hearts, the wasted potential of all those young black children without a preparation that would enable them to be great computer scientists.
Essentially, we keep finding extraneous reasons to do the right thing. I do not believe – nor does anyone else – that the potential of a poor black kid is any greater than that of a poor white kid. We should, no, no, no, we ought to increase the access for black kids – and, honestly, for poor people all around – because we purposefully limited it for centuries.
Diverse societies are not better or worse than single race or ethnically homogeneous societies. The same way that phenotypically mixed-race people are not better or worse than their phenotypically non-mixed-race peers.
The constant and ever so rapidly changes and population movements of the world and age in which we live – and, honestly, as J. Lorand Matory and others have shown, in which we probably have always lived – highlights the importance of respecting diversity, that is, respecting and realizing that the other is just that “other like me and different, neither less, nor more, and certainly not an object.” And that, in theory, applies everywhere.
However, there is a history that made things to be the way they are because it didn’t just happen to be this way. Blacks in America didn’t just happen to be poor and inexplicably underrepresented in colleges and universities. Therefore, speaking of the goodness of diversity is convenient.
‘Diversity is good’ has become a pragmatic proxy to avoid saying: we have exploited these groups for 20 generations or longer and that’s why they are stuck where they are. So, we owe them the creation of true opportunities to actually even the playing field. Otherwise, what we keep saying is: diversity is good because we can still use them, and they are otherwise, expensive in our workplace and our hospitals.
Diversity is not good or bad. Discrimination is bad. Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. Poverty is bad. The entrenched linkage between race and poverty that resulted from a history of slavery by many names is bad. Lack of diversity in the workplace, in the boardrooms, in the houses of power is the result of such history and needs to be addressed as such and not with palliatives and diversity training programs that further affirm the distance between the groups.
We are not really different. Our phenotypical differences were made to signify essential differences because it was (and is) profitable. The more we insist on inclusion and diversity the more we are acquiescing with the norm of a society that is, supposedly, not ours; to which we need to convince it needs us and we can be useful.
Do not get me wrong. We need to fight for full inclusion and full access but not because it may be beneficial to society or because it is good for business. We are as much the owners of this society as the whites are. Or we should be – we certainly worked our tails off building that wealth. We – actually all of us of all colors – need to fight for it because it is the right thing to do and it is also owed to us.

The more we contend diversity is good, the more we demean ourselves as commodities. We were less than humans once and that justified our use and our handling as property; now we are again used ever so kindly as our full participation in society is premised on the fact that it is a good thing for society. Apparently, it is not our birthright for being humans and, herein to, even citizens. 
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