April 23, 2012

Moving Beyond Quotas

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I only vaguely remember filling out my roommate questionnaire as a prefrosh, but I do remember that it was fairly nerve-wracking. The really important questions — Are you going to go off the deep end when your boyfriend breaks up with you around Thanksgiving? Are you going to bring people home and have really loud sex with them when I’m trying to sleep? — don’t get asked, and it’s sort of hard to gauge these things before you’ve lived with a person for a while. What if my questionnaire answers got me paired with someone insane?

Mainly, though, I was just worried about living with someone really, really different than what I was used to. If prefrosh-me had been allowed to specify all the details of my roommate, I would have asked for another short Asian American, preferably with a mild-to-moderate case of social awkwardness, and whose idea of a good time is to stay in with some well-written science fiction (and maybe bake some cookies).

What I was looking for was familiarity. I wanted someone who was the same as I was, someone who would instantly understand me. I was instead matched with a tall brunette studying Fiber Science and Apparel design, exhaustingly social, completely unlike me and the best roommate I could have asked for. We are radically different people, but by the end of the year I had a friend in someone that started out as a completely foreign stranger and learned a lot about myself in the process.

What I was unwittingly handed by the Housing Office, oh-so-very-long-ago, was a lesson in the value of diversity. It’s easy to wave away diversity as just another buzzword, something Day Hall passes down every once in a while to make sure our campus appears politically correct. And honestly, diversity is not something we generally seek out. Diversity is uncomfortable. Diversity is awkward and stressful. Rapport is much easier with people from your own ethnic and social background, the kind of people that instantly understand your jokes. It’s not fun when someone doesn’t get you, and sometimes it’s downright alienating. So once we get the chance to pick whom we spend our time with, we avoid diversity whenever we can. We retreat from heterogeneous classrooms to the clumps of people who think and live and socialize like us.

There’s a lot to be said for finding a community of people who understand you. When the world is intimidating, you need people who already know how to support you.

But if the goal is to make everyone feel comfortable, why do we talk about diversity as important and valuable? Is there truly something to be said about surrounding ourselves with people that think differently than we do? If so, diversity must be so much more than just a question of filling our classrooms with the right colors. What do we give up when people are allowed to ignore the people unlike them?

Let me ask this in a slightly different way. What happens when you fill a fraternity house with only aggressive males and stir in an uninhibited culture of heavy drinking? Or combine a systematically caution-averse culture with oil rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico?

This is not a criticism of the Greek system, or of any system in particular. This is a criticism of the way we talk about diversity as game of ethnicity and enrollment, rather than a larger culture of getting people to operate out of their comfort zones. If our campus is truly committed to diversity, we must aggressively break up the lines we draw to divide ourselves from others — and break up existing institutions, if need be. Every department, ethnicity, team and house has its own culture of the best and the worst. Sometimes the results of distilling a culture are terrible and tragic, and visible enough to splash their way onto news headlines. More often, we simply walk away as stunted people.

Original Author: Deborah Liu