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Mon Jun 9, 2014, 08:15 AM

The Value of Diversity [View all]

Diversity is something that has been valued by the Democratic Party and educated liberals for decades now. Democrats depend upon a diverse electorate to win office since the party's base is primarily women and people of color. In higher education and in business, it is widely understood that diversity is a benefit. People from a variety of backgrounds--whether race, gender, sexual orientation, class, region, or nationality--enhance intellectual exchange, promote greater creativity and increase business competitiveness.

But what does diversity mean? For much of the twentieth century, it meant allowing the presence of people of color and women as long as they did not act or speak in ways that diverged from the dominant culture. People thought black folk were okay (beginning in the 1960s) if they didn't seem "too black." Hispanic folk were okay if they left their "cultural baggage" and language at home. The image of the Melting Pot exemplifies this notion of America. Immigrants from around the world could melt into a single, homogenized Anglo-American culture. Henry Ford used to hold plays for his factory workers, where they would enter the stage dressed in immigrant garb, walk into the melting pot, only to emerge transformed into a "regular" American, indistinguishable from the dominant cultural idea of what it mean to look, dress, and speak American.


Historical image of the Melting Pot, with an Irish man resisting, not quite able to melt


Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, scholars critiqued the idea of a Melting Pot and suggested the idea of a mixed American salad, in which immigrant and ethnic groups would integrate into the broader culture but not shed their ethnic heritage. Rather, that heritage was seen as enriching the broader American culture. That meant America changed. Cultures, of course, always change; none are static. Recognizing the salad metaphor as a replacement for the Melting Pot did not alter the course of that change; it simply provided a more useful way of understanding it.

The salad metaphor is nothing new. Such understandings of diversity have prevailed in universities, non-profits, and even many businesses for decades. Our differing backgrounds allow us to contribute in differing ways. Many on DU, however, seem resistant to this notion. Some have a great deal of trouble recognizing that people who come from different ethnic backgrounds experience the world and politics in ways that differ from the majority demographic of this site, which does tend to be older and far whiter than American society at large. I don't think people here would object to someone based on skin color alone, but a number do seem to object to the views that come from living in that skin. Embracing diversity--which is at the very core of the Democratic Party and modern-day liberalism--requires understanding that other people's life experiences matter. Expecting that no one will discuss their experiences of racism, other than to blame Republicans, is to essentially say you don't want anyone to act "too black." If we value diversity, that means respecting diversity of opinion. It doesn't mean you need to agree, but to declare them trolls, as sowing division, or being worth less than the older white majority is to show hostility toward diversity.

The sowing division claim is particularly problematic. Duers disagree on any number of issues, from which candidate to support in an election, to gun policy, drug policy, foreign policy, and NSA surveillance. Will Rogers famous statement remains as true now as ever: "I'm not a member of any organized party. I'm a Democrat." Democrats disagree. It's what we do. That comes from critical thinking. So why are issues of race and gender unacceptably divisive when those others are not?

What the trope of "dividing people" along race and gender lines ignores is that those divisions already exist. American society is highly stratified, and the experience of what it means to be African American, Hispanic, or other ethnic identities varies greatly from what it means to be white. When people decry "division," what they are objecting to is being exposed to the view on the other side of the divide. They would prefer not to hear about those lives and those experiences. That is indeed unfortunate, and it is a position that is openly hostile to diversity. Diversity, you see, is not simply tolerating the presence of people with dark skin as long as they don't act "too ethnic"; it is understanding that their life experiences and voices matter. It means understanding that they will have concerns you never thought of, that may even make you uncomfortable, but in seeking to shut them down, you only shut yourself off from the modern world. America is not comprised entirely of people who think just like you, and to pretend that liberalism depends on upholding a white hegemonic view of politics that excludes anyone whose life experiences and perspectives differ from your own does yourself and this online community a great disservice.

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