At Penn, everybody loves diversity — especially student leaders.
That’s what I learned at last Friday’s debate, held by Penn’s minority coalitions for the two Undergraduate Assembly presidential candidates. When asked how they could understand the feelings of Penn’s minority students and others on the “margin,” the candidates (who happen to be white) rushed to jump on the inclusiveness bandwagon. Candidate and College junior Grant Dubler won the most applause with this gem: “I’m never going to have to go through some of the things that you and your friends … have to go through.”
Which got me thinking: what exactly do we minority students “have to go through” at Penn? Was there a recent wave of discrimination that I missed?
It’s disturbed me how reluctant student leaders are to question the diversity mantra. By failing to recognize how many minority students are actually satisfied with Penn’s campus environment, minority groups risk pushing their diversity initiatives too far and significantly damaging race relations on campus.
United Minorities Council Chairman G.J. Melendez-Torres rightfully points out that it’s hard to put diversity efforts on a timeline. “Penn is remarkably accepting,” the Wharton and Nursing junior said. But there’s “still work to be done.”
So what do minority students say about Penn’s progress? Last month, Penn released the results of its Perception of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences survey. Overwhelming majorities of every ethnic group agreed that students here are respected regardless of race, including over 80 percent of Latino and Asian/Pacific American respondents and 64 percent of black respondents.
While the data suggests some room for improvement, it also suggests that minority students reject the notion that they are somehow “marginalized” by the majority. As an Asian American, I know I’m not marginalized (though let’s be honest — Asians are barely a minority at Penn).
These misguided notions about what minority students “go through” would be harmless — if they didn’t lead students to become overzealous about diversity.
Case in point: Last year, UA members enthusiastically endorsed a report by the Working Group on Minorities in Undergraduate Education, a team of people from student government and minority groups. While well-intentioned, the report included some ridiculous proposals.
For instance, it found that Asian-American students worry about classes with graded participation because “participation [is] not part of their educational culture.” The report suggested “sensitivity training for professors” might help address the problem. But at its core, participation isn’t a racial issue — it’s about personality. There are plenty of loud Asians and quiet white students. The report unnecessarily turned a debate about pedagogy into a debate about race.
The report also pointed out the sense of “tokenism” that minorities face. Ironically, recently suggested initiatives by diversity advocates would worsen this problem.Many students, for example, argue for increasing the number of Latino faculty at Penn. While the University should do everything to attract faculty members from all walks of life, nothing is more insulting than being selected because of one’s racial identification rather than one’s accomplishments. When Penn hires someone because of his or her minority status, it ensures that colleagues will see that person as simply filling a quota.
Others bemoan the lack of minority representation in the UA, mistakenly believing that only minorities can advocate for minority issues. But when we focus too much on race, we make one’s ethnicity more important than it should be. How will we overcome our racial differences if we continually emphasize them?
I’m grateful to minority groups for the valuable resources they provide. But I worry that in our relentless quest for inclusiveness, we forget — or worse, avoid — asking the tougher questions about diversity. All students — minority or not — must start asking those questions.
Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior from New Market, Md. He is the former Marketing Manager and Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Penn vs. Sword appears on Thursdays.
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