Diversity is not a buzzword

Opinion by Tashrima Hossain
March 5, 2017, 3:04 p.m.

I’ve had a rude awakening.

As a Bangladeshi-American woman, I was always the minority in my large Texas high school. I lived a life of assimilation — assimilation to the male-dominated debate milieu, to the conservative views that permeated my community, to the peers who couldn’t tell the difference between Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia.

My saving grace would be college. One day, I’d escape this echo chamber of belief, culture and race. At a place like Stanford, where admissions officers contrive a community of diverse individuals from unique backgrounds, I would find people like me. More importantly, I would find even more people unlike me.

In the first months of my freshman year, I was overjoyed. Stanford is a confluence of people from across the country and around the world, with passions I could never conceive and stories that were unthinkable.

I had my rude awakening a few weeks ago, sitting in a room full of incredible peers. For the first time, I noticed the surroundings that I had always instinctively accepted. To my surprise, I realized I was one of three women of color. I then considered the other spaces I’ve navigated at Stanford, and all of a sudden, Stanford looked a little bit too much like my high school.

To the outside eye, universities are diverse. People of all races, genders and sexual orientations, from different socioeconomic statuses, geographic regions and religious backgrounds come together to explore divergent interests. However, the benefits of diversity are not an automatic product of a varied student body.

Soon after freshman year begins, the student body settles into homogenous communities. This self-segregation can be based on background, academic interests, professional aspirations or any other identifying factors for twenty-something college students. Those who are the same huddle together. Over the next four years, we rarely deviate from those safe spaces.

The disengagement from diversity starts on the first day of college and continues after graduation. College is a place where the children of millionaires sit in class beside students living between paychecks — and the polarization shows. Some elite universities educate more students from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60. At Stanford, even after receiving the same education, a student from an affluent family will end up earning more post-graduation than a student with a low-income background. The two sides rarely take the time to mix.

After all, when we have two p-sets, a job interview and a midterm all in one week, what’s the point in veering outside of our comfort zones? Running from appointment to appointment is uncomfortable — so shouldn’t our free moments be spent in ease?

Students immediately discover an enclave within the enclave that is Stanford, and as a result, close themselves off to new experiences and points of view. In psychological terms, this tendency is called the “dynamic of sameness” — when complex, unspoken and often unrealized dynamics of power arise in any human interaction. It’s natural for us to gravitate toward people like us. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s okay.

At Stanford, we often dupe ourselves into thinking we truly do engage with different perspectives. We have a discussion on diversity in a seminar or participate in our freshman dorm’s Crossing the Line. Then we return to our niches, tired from the brief excursion out of our comfort zone. We must certainly be aware of diversity now that we’ve had these short exercises, right?

Often times, on-campus communities strive to “create open and diverse spaces.” Diverse, diverse, diverse – recruitment processes strive to “build diversity.” We live in a world where Karlie Kloss dresses as a geisha to embody cultural difference. Such goals fetishize diversity, making the one Bangladeshi girl in the group fulfill the quota. But diversity is not something to strive toward. It’s just a reality that must be embraced.

Enough is enough.

When in our life will we be placed in a community that is intentionally and artificially crafted to represent various subsets of the global community?

College is the time to get to know the people who are nothing like us. Everyone has a story — listen to it, and if anything, you’ll learn an important lesson before moving forward with your day. Escaping our comfort zones and meeting people unlike us is easier said than done. As I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable in my communities here at Stanford, I am learning just how difficult it can be to deviate from one’s comfort zone.

There’s no structured process for meeting new people and engaging with other ways of looking at the world. Instead, it’s a constantly evolving process. It’s a process of entering communities where you may not initially belong, being open and actively listening. It’s about recognizing how the nuances of people’s experiences shape their perspectives. It’s realizing that Stanford is just a slice of the global community and that engaging with all parts of that slice will bring us one step closer to understanding the world we inhabit.

My recent awakening has been rude, but necessary. Living in a diverse space is not the same as  being a part of it. In order to get the most of the Stanford community — and more importantly, of the world — we must stop assimilating. It’s time to wake up.


Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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