When colleges say they believe in diversity, what do they really mean? It talk of diversity nothing more than a gimmick to get college websites and brochures to look like politically correct Benetton ad?  Alejandra Dubcovsky, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, addresses this issue in the following post. Dubcovsky’s research and teaching focus on colonial America. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, an Echoing Green project aimed at increasing the range of voices and quality of ideas heard in the public space.

By Alejandra Dubcovsky

Across the country students are getting their college acceptance letters. Each campus is eager to recruit the students it has accepted, urging the academic, athletic, musical and otherwise talented standouts to accept the offers, and inviting them to envision the possibilities a particular campus affords. College will be exciting, challenging and worthwhile, the letters all promise. How can the prospective student be sure? Schools boast not only about their academics or traditions, but also about their diversity: their diverse faculty, students, opinions, and opportunities. But what does diversity mean?

“We believe in the value of diversity,” or so every college brochure I had received when applying to college promised. In theory, I also believed that.  It seemed wrong to believe in anything else, especially as a first-generation immigrant. But I did not get it. What was the value of an underrepresented student pursuing an education? Sure, that person could get smarter, even richer as a result of education. As for an institution to care about this issue, well that seemed ridiculous. I was convinced that all this talk of diversity was merely a ploy to get college websites and brochures looking like 21st century, politically correct Benetton ads.

That cynicism stayed with me through most of my college experience – until I became a McNair Scholar in my junior year at the University of California Berkeley. The goal of the McNair Scholar Program, named after the astronaut and scientist Ronald McNair who died onboard the space shuttle Challenger, is to prepare underrepresented students to pursue a Ph.D. As a McNair Scholar, I had received both financial and academic support to conduct research on letters written and dictated by American slaves in the antebellum South. As I met my cohort, a group of 20 other minority undergraduates, I chuckled. We looked like that glossy advertisement I had dreaded.

But then, one-by-one, students sitting in the room during our first meeting took turns explaining the individual research projects they were conducting: the loan rate of black small-business owners, the informal market economy of Jamaican street markets, the impact of the genocidal practices of the Khmer Rouge on minority populations, a complex profile of Republican Latino voters. The list went on. These topics were not just new to me. They were new. We were all pursuing new ideas, and this is when diversity began to make sense. Diversity was not just about having people who looked different, though we surely did. Diversity was about tackling new and complex questions. This is when I got it. Different perspectives inform different sensitivities.

This is not to say that only minority students delve into unexplored topics or that all major interventions come from minorities. But if we disregard those perspectives, we are missing the voices of an increasingly growing sector of the population. There is value in having more than one voice in the room. Not only will more topics be considered and more ideas discussed, but who gets to ask questions, find the answers and determine what matters intellectually will also begin to shift.

Recruiting and allowing minority students in the door, however, should be the first step, not the last. Diversity only matters when it is diverse, when minority students are not pigeonholed into the fields and activities that are considered appropriate. It is one thing to allow more minority students into academia; it is quite another to actually listen to what those different voices are saying. When one of my McNair fellows presented her research on Shakespearean sonnets, the first question she received was why, as a Latina woman, she had chosen to study a “dead white man.” The question was in good humor, but it struck a somber note. Did she lack the authority to talk about Shakespeare because she was Latina? Was there something else she was supposed to be investigating? Were there subjects beyond her reach?

This proved to be an all too common experience. The African-American student researching food ways complained about how she had to constantly explain why her research was not tied to slavery. A Mexican American student felt pressure to find some personal connection to the Haitian Revolution when she could not give her audience a “good answer” beyond deep intellectual curiosity and a historical need when asked why she was studying the struggles of this Caribbean island in the late 18th Century. The students recruited for their diversity found that there were very specific ways in which diversity needed to be performed.

At first I went along with this performance. When people asked me why I did not study Latin America, I would look down and mumble an excuse, practically apologizing for my interest in U.S. history. But with time, my apologies turned to frustration. Regardless (or maybe because of) being born and raised in Argentina, I had a stake in American history. It took a long time for me to learn how to articulate a reply that both showcased my dislike for the question while reaffirming my desire, if not ability, to research the history that I wanted and to ask the question I found most pressing.

At times my unfamiliarity with popular American mythos led to some awkward situations; I did not understand the joke in my first undergraduate seminar about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. But it ultimately became a source of strength. My personal background led me to question even the most basic assumptions, affording me the opportunity to examine history through a unique lens. And that is power of diversity — not that you are more colorful, but that you look at things differently, that you can push academia further, challenge who gets to ask the questions and shape disciplines, and rewrite the very stories that make up our today.