Diversity, or: liberation lite

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Jan. 24, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

It was a few days before Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015, and a number of organizers and I were discussing the demands we planned to make on the day of. “How about admitting more trans people to Stanford?” someone asked, and we mulled on that idea for a while before ultimately deciding not to include it. I thought, at that time, that I didn’t want transgender students to enter into a campus that could not support them. How more trans people at Stanford didn’t mean any change in the systems outside of Stanford that oppress trans people. I thought, mostly, about how the need for reparations and justice in college had long since been quashed by the idea of “diversity.”

At Stanford, “diversity” tends to refer to the state of having marginalized bodies in any given space. For example, a “diverse” classroom would have students of color, first-generation students, Muslim students, etc.; a “diverse” teaching staff would have female faculty members, trans faculty members, etc. Diversity is something seen by administrators, provosts and lab managers as a positive characteristic: A diverse Stanford community “offers different perspectives, experiences and cultures that enrich the educational experience.” This is the dominant view of diversity: a garnish made from the experiences of the marginalized to “enrich” the experiences of students who are otherwise white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle- to high-class, Christian, or men.

The idea is always vague. Do they want half the incoming class to be people of color? Do they want at least some percent of their students on campus to be trans? How many women in faculty is diverse “enough?” Of course, these questions are never really asked – any connection to quotas or affirmative action is quickly avoided in favor of a nebulous (but pleasant-sounding) commitment to that word, diversity.

The trouble lies not in the concept of diversity itself – which in some situations would in fact provide the kind of mutual benefit to the community that Stanford describes – but in the deployment of “diversity” rhetoric, in the treatment of “diverse” students whose identities Stanford values for the benefit they bestow to the community. At this point, I’m tired of being offered a spot on a panel or in a talk as if the offer benefits me somehow – I get nothing but the experience of visibility and the short-lived satisfaction of having “made a difference;” Stanford gets my labor for free and the pleasure of having had a real trans person or a real woman of color on a diverse panel “share their story.” How many panels must we serve on to get the change we ask for? How much of our effort as students must we put in to see the resources and treatment on campus that I daresay we had the right to receive in the first place?

We need to see the bigger picture of this institution. Is Stanford attempting to situate its efforts in a larger framework of change, with clear goals and quantifiable steps to their realization? Are well-intentioned advocates, students and faculty alike, strategically centering identities and experiences with a larger vision in mind?

Whether with funding, speakers, or “diversity profiles,” Stanford needs to see its minority and/or marginalized students as more than people it can thrust the burden of change onto. We are tired of leading dual lives, simultaneously thankful for our coveted spots in “diverse” environments and struggling against discrimination, prejudice and violence in our lives. I’ve had enough of Stanford assuming that it can pawn off the responsibility of change, of justice, of action, onto those students who are willing to assume it  – and it is precisely this kind of trickle-down liberation that we need to be done with. It is this idea of diversity for diversity’s sake that we need to grow past.

If Stanford values its “diverse” students, then it has the commitment to show that to us. We cannot value Black students and be noticeably silent about the police brutality and systemic violence that they face. We cannot value Indigenous students and not take comprehensive action against their experiences of mass incarceration and land dispossession. We cannot value women in our community and fail to support survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. For low-income students, queer students, students of color, neurodivergent students, Palestinian students, the intersection of any and all of these identities, and more, we cannot value only their existence on this campus and not their well-being.

People here are always talking about breaking out of the bubble. Isn’t justice as good a reason as any? Stanford has enormous power, influence, and resources that it can invest in the same communities that produce those “diverse” students it so values. Stanford can divest from institutions and corporations and structures that hurt those same students. For “diversity” on campus to have meaning, it must be one facet of a larger effort to do justice to all members of the Stanford community – before, during, and after their time on campus.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

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