Not Just a Diversity Number
There are days I feel like I have an invisible number, a percentage, following me around everywhere I go. It’s kind of like that commercial about depression, where this gray balloon follows a woman everywhere she goes ... and then that gray balloon turns into a ball and chain and weighs her down and literally sinks her into the ground.
So what’s the number following me around? It’s the diversity statistic on my campus. The percentage of faculty at my institution who are faculty of color (we say "diversity," but then when it comes to counting, we seem to be only keeping track of the color of our skin). I am one of "them," you see, and there are days when I wonder if when I was hired a little meter turned in the provost's mind (like a calendar flipping to the next date) with a little ca-ching sound that signaled I was the nth faculty of color at my institution. Maybe all faculty of color everywhere have a special number, a percentage that they are known by in administrative circles: There goes the one who put us in double digits, here’s the 20th-percenter and so on.
Let me put humility aside for a second. When I was hired at my current position, I knew I was good at what I do. I had published more than many people at my stage in their careers, I had presented at conferences regularly, I had won a couple of awards, and I was a good teacher. However, once I joined my institution, it seemed that all of that was forgotten. All that was ever talked about was the "diversity statistic": how the institution had hired x number of faculty of color, y number of women in science and so on.
To stand up and be introduced at the new faculty orientation and the first faculty senate meeting, was for most of us an uncomfortable experience, to put it mildly. Are we the sideshow at the circus? Step right up, step right up! Here before you is the black lesbian academic, over to the left is your woman in science, and to the right you will find a brown woman of indistinguishable background, and on your way out please stop and say hello to the dark-skinned man with a thick foreign accent of some kind who may or may not be gay.
To some extent faculty of color feel like we are on display for the college (take a quick look at college websites, pamphlets or look books and you’ll see what I mean). It is as if our presence is proof of the college’s benevolence and progressiveness, and not of our abilities and accomplishments and what we add to the college. While faculty who do not add to the "diversity" of a campus can claim that their presence on campus is a testament to their own intellectual accomplishments, faculty of color too often are made to feel that our presence on our campus is a testament to the institution’s diversity accomplishments.
For the rest of the college community we are the people who breed resentment. Instead of seeing us for everything that we bring to the job, we are seen simply as "diversity candidates." So while the presidents, provosts, and deans pad their C.V.s with the successful "diversity initiatives" they have launched on their campuses to propel themselves to the next rung on the administrative ladder, we, the supposed benefactors of the "diversity initiative," are left trying to survive in an environment where our colleagues see us as less worthy and less able. Has anybody stopped to consider what the constant and overwhelming emphasis on our "diversity" does to and for us? We constantly have to "come out" about our academic achievements, constantly have to prove to our colleagues that we do in fact deserve to be here.
It is not that I am opposed to colleges diversifying. Quite the contrary! Faculty of color wouldn’t be seen as rare and exotic species if college campuses were more diversified and more integrated. It would also help minimize the circus sideshow during faculty orientation. What I am opposed to, however, is all the talk and emphasis that administrators put on our diversity to the detriment and outright neglect of everything else we bring to the table.
When you constantly tout only the diversity of a candidate, you have in essence minimized all the accomplishments of that candidate in everyone else's eyes. Self-congratulation about diversity hiring may be good for the college (and for the presidents and provosts), but it leaves individual faculty members marginalized by putting an emphasis on their "otherness" instead of their academic worth. Furthermore, because colleges are content with simply increasing their diversity numbers, they haven’t given much thought to what happens after faculty of color join a college community. So the real issues and challenges — partly exacerbated by the much ballyhooed diversity initiatives — that diverse faculty deal with, are swept under the rug once we're hired.
We should be more than our skin color, our sexual orientation, or our country of origin. We should be more than a checked category, a percentage, or an initiative. Unfortunately, we’re not. I know that there are many more like me. And many of us are wondering how long that invisible number is going to follow us around.
Anonymous is an assistant professor at a liberal arts college.