In a job interview during my first year, I was asked how I might extend the professional development opportunities that the organization offered to students of color. The interviewer posed the question because the opportunity networks that white students take advantage of are often insular, extending only to other white students and the few students of color on the periphery. The only answer I could come up with to my interviewer’s question was “Put fliers in the cultural centers.” Frankly, my response has haunted me ever since.
The rhetoric around diversity, both nationally and at Yale, seems to be focused on a brand of assimilationist politics — the deeply misguided notion that students of color want to be wealthy, that we want to possess the social legitimacy and cultural capital of our white counterparts on terms dictated by white stakeholders. This rhetoric cultivates a sense that students of color need to be reached, and we should focus on efficient conduits for doing so. Under the social and political logics of assimilation, whiteness will always be centered — color is constantly peripheral. Assimilation provides some half-hearted gesture at progress while evading a liberation politics that would decenter whiteness and abolish the notions of center and periphery (a venerable postcolonial vision that has been articulated by such theorists as Édouard Glissant). Assimilation, as an order-making project, asserts a hierarchy, at least of values, but also of race, of cultural values or of languages — in short, of all the components of identity that differentiate the experiences of students of color from those of our white peers. At Yale, however, the focus remains on “reaching” people of color, primarily through the cultural centers.
Diversity programming tends to make numerous false assumptions; most programs focus on placing fliers in the cultural centers and accepting token students of color into historically white groups. In doing so, they falsely conjecture that students of color are universally welcomed by the cultural centers, even when large swaths of students, such as Middle Eastern or North African students, find themselves completely excluded from the cultural center framework. Even when students aren’t explicitly excluded, many others still don’t find value in the cultural center setup. Second, attempting to capitalize on the cultural centers assumes that students’ engagement with the cultural centers serves as a suitable alternative to the hubs of white sociocultural power on campus (this includes most student organizations housed outside of the cultural centers). In reality, the cultural centers, to varying degrees, serve as places of refuge and power building for the students of color that they serve. Finally, diversity rhetoric relies on tokens — it relies on the notion that students of color wish to serve the white peers that we engage with, by providing our perspectives to the discourse and our faces to the glossy brochures. Rather than treating equity as a moral imperative, it takes an exploitative stance, centered on providing opportunities to students of color.
I may be in the minority, but I don’t want opportunity: I want power. Students of color, even when we find ourselves in white dominated spaces, find ourselves on the peripheries. We find ourselves undermined by peers, faculty and administrators, typically white, who tell us we can’t complain because we have “a seat at the table,” a euphemistic shorthand for the illusion of being a stakeholder and power broker. That is not enough — we deserve to be seated at the head of the table not only because we have a surfeit of the skills to lead, but also because we must dictate our own terms of engagement with white power structures, not from within white power structures. The top-down model of white power-holders “providing opportunities” to students of color adopts a trickle-down approach that has never worked. Instead, equity demands a horizontal integration that allows students of color agency and the rights to both engagement and refusal.
White students: Take a few steps back. You already know: when we enter white-dominated spaces, we take on the implicit roles of leadership, expending invaluable emotional and intellectual labor. It is time we were given the titles and power we deserve.
Sohum Pal is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .