Thursday, November 20, 2014

Diversity and equity: White men “just don’t get it”

O. Nigel Bolland

Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Caribbean Studies, Emeritus

When I arrived at Colgate in 1972 it was in the throes of becoming a more diverse and equitable institution. For most of its history Colgate had been a very exclusive place: only White and Elite Male Protestants need apply. When women were first admitted in the 1970s they were viewed as an experiment. There was also a handful of non-White, non-Elite, and non-Protestant male students, but Colgate remained a distinctly WEMPy place, and proud of it.

   As an undergraduate at Hull University in England, a graduate student at McMaster University in Canada, and a faculty member at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, I had not encountered an institution like Colgate and I found it hard to understand. I was used to sharing classrooms with women, and with students and faculty of different ethnicities and nationalities. In fact, I thought that such diversity was an essential aspect of a good environment for higher education, but at Colgate this was still considered a novel experiment. I was puzzled by the answer given to me when I asked, in all innocence at a fraternity dinner, why students chose to live in a fraternity. “We want to live with people who are just like us,” I was told. That sounded to me like the antithesis of what a college environment should be.

   Diversity is not just a numbers game, as the recent demonstrations at Colgate have reminded us. What diversity should be about is seeking and appreciating differences, as a way to learn about and grow in the world we share. In a powerful column in today’s NY Times (11/16/2014), Nicholas Kristof writes, “Those of us who are white have a remarkable capacity for delusions,” and “one element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege.” More specifically, I would add, one aspect of elite-white-male privilege is that we don’t have to understand “others’ in order to get on. Standing, as we do, on the shoulders of our privileged ancestors, the view looks good, and we have no need to “get it,” but from any other standpoint people need to figure out how to succeed, and even to survive, in what is for them an alien environment. That was true for the first women and people of color among the students and faculty at Colgate in the 1970s, and some of that has not changed, or changed enough.

   When Douglas MacDonald wrote, “Obviously, a female cannot by the definition of identity politics understand the difficulty of being male in capitalist America,” I think he has missed the point that all people who are in a socially inferior status need to understand those who are in a superior status - but the reverse is not true. Elite white males don’t have to “get it” in order to get on. They can just be themselves, but everyone else must understand them, or else…

   So, is there a problem of gender equity at Colgate, as MacDonald suggests, or is the problem just the result of one’s viewpoint? In 1983 male college students outnumbered females in the US by 12,465,000 to 6,441,000, or about 2:1. Since the late 1970s, females outpaced males in college enrollment nationally, as in many other countries also. In 1994, 63% of recent female and 61% of male high school graduates were enrolled in college the fall following graduation. By 2012, the relevant figures were 71% for women and, still, 61% for men. The preponderance of female students in higher education now prevails across all types of schools. The US average in 2008 was 43.62% male and 56.38% female undergraduates. In private schools the ratio is  about 40-60, which is a more extreme ratio than Colgate's. There are many reasons for this shift, and there has been a lot of discussion about it, but one reason is surely not a “prejudice based on gender,” either in the personnel or the decisions in Colgate’s Admissions Office. So I suggest that this is perceived as a problem of equity only from a particular viewpoint, in this case, perhaps, a viewpoint that considers it normal for Colgate to be a largely male institution.

   The perception that Elite-White-Males are losing their predominant position in society often results in charges of “reverse discrimination” because such people “just don’t get it.” We should not be surprised that at Colgate, with its long WEMPy tradition, there are still people who feel somewhat endangered, but it is really only their exclusive claim to a privileged position that is threatened by change. Colgate has, throughout its history, been an exclusive and inequitable institution, and we should be clear that we understand that its social function was to reproduce the elite of society. As that function, the social reproduction of a privileged elite, became less acceptable and defensible in the later twentieth century, Colgate, like similar institutions, began to change. Like all institutions, however, Colgate defended its traditions and was reluctant to change, and we need to remember that, as a privileged institution, it had substantial resources to defend itself.

   I agree with Brian Moore that, “As a community, we have been in denial about our defects for too long.” As an institution designed to reproduce privilege, Colgate has needed to be pushed time after time to take each step towards greater diversity and equity. When the next history of Colgate is recorded it should include, for example, an account of the occupation of the administration building by students and faculty who pushed the Board of Trustees to divest from South Africa. We can now be proud of the decision, but we also need to remember and acknowledge the circumstances in which the decision was made. It was a struggle. Similarly, today, we need to understand that further changes are needed in the community, the curriculum, and the culture of Colgate. The nature of the problem needs first to be openly and widely acknowledged, however, before the cure can be achieved. So long as we “just don’t get it,” and for so long as we try to limit ourselves to sharing our views and lives with people who are just like ourselves, we will remain part of the problem.

The above post does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the AAUP membership or that of its officers, nor does inclusion of the post on this website constitute an endorsement by the Colgate chapter of the AAUP.

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