Op-Ed: What is Diversity?

The following is a contributed Op-Ed written by Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Lisa Uddin, who is a member of the Global Studies Initiative Steering Committee.

I write this during several days of upheaval over Global Studies at Whitman College, with a glass of wine on the table and a spouse who wants me to come to bed already. I also write this during my fourth year as a faculty member who, in this particular institutional and geographic setting, has come to discover herself as other-than-white–intellectually, phenotypically, and socially.

My point here is not to enact disclosures of identity but to highlight the moving target that is campus diversity at Whitman. Diversity is a prominent virtue and a stake in the Global Studies Initiative (GSI). By now, you may have heard that the GSI has diversified the curriculum and co-curriculum, helped recruit and retain minority faculty members, and is organized by a committee composed of a disproportionate number of women faculty of color; i.e., it does good “diversity work.”

But what is diversity? Responses will very much depend on your field of study, your background, your trust in demographic data, and your threshold for the complex dynamics of all social relations and identities.

Since coming to Whitman, I have noticed a remarkable–and necessary–elasticity to the term. With such elasticity, diversity has been able to name that process of recognizing substantive difference in U.S. higher education (and redistribute resources accordingly), while also recognizing that diversifying Whitman always includes, and is always more than, taking the attendance of those people who are historically minoritized.

Diversity is, among other things, the lively and joyous presence of your other in your company: in your residential community, on your syllabus, as your professor, in your dinner plans, and in your life plans. The GSI has been critical for introducing this presence and creating occasions to reflect on the intricacies of engaging it. That it has done so without predetermining what diversity might entail, and to whom it might speak, testifies to its value. Perhaps in another place, the word “diversity” would not strike the chord in me that it does here. Perhaps this is one sign that Global Studies at Whitman matters now as much as ever.