Hitting the Wall

Expecting graduate students to engage in diversity work that benefits the university -- without compensation or accountability -- is inherently exploitative, argues Prabhdeep Kehal.

February 23, 2018
 
 

I have hit the diversity wall. Sara Ahmed refers to this moment as a person realizing that a practitioners’ decades of genuine diversity work, or efforts to create a more just and equitable environment for marginalized students, are met with shallow, symbolic responses.

Despite its looming shadow, I thought I would never hit this wall. I believed that my investments were not wasteful, even though I could have spent my time pursuing other professional endeavors. I was optimistic; diversity work has been billed among students, staff and faculty as the most legitimate way to help higher education realize its stated goals of equity. Diversity work was a moral imperative: to do nothing felt like giving up and resigning myself to persistent educational inequality. Yet despite all the patience that came with this optimism, I have finally run out.

Throughout my postsecondary career, much of my time has been dedicated to supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives. I volunteered this labor as if these institutions were entitled to my time. Very rarely was I asked to engage, because the assumption was that I would engage.

After experiencing years of slow progress, I came to see more clearly an immense gap between an institution’s intention for inclusion and their investment in it. This gap enabled the institution to benefit from my and other students’ free labor without being held accountable. I’ve reached the point where I can’t justify that exploitation. I’ve hit the diversity wall and am reclaiming my time and labor.

Diversity work requires a particular type of service: it asks us to put the institution first while rarely returning the favor, even for tenured faculty members. Not only is working on diversity negatively rewarded for women and/or people of color compared to white men, but graduate students are also in particularly precarious positions -- as those from whom we demand change also hold immense power over our livelihoods and our career trajectories. Expecting graduate students to engage in the work that benefits the university -- without compensation or accountability -- is inherently exploitative. While graduate students are asked to operate according to a moral imperative with potentially high professional costs, the institution and department profit and get to set the bounds of change.

The national political climate puts an additional burden, and potential danger, on students doing diversity work. Given the 258 percent increase in white supremacist propaganda on campuses in the past year, those at the forefront of diversity efforts are targets for harassment or violence. Because institutions have not championed a systematic opposition to that growing white supremacist influence, the burden and responsibility of responding to these threats shifts to students. Students across the nation have mobilized in protest and created safety and healing communities for other students, all while institutions try to create the image of being the fair arbiter of peaceful, political discourse. As institutions manufacture and champion a false equivalence between white supremacy and antiracism, students and allied faculty members bear the consequences for taking a stance.

Our current social and political moment demands we either abandon piecemeal diversity entirely or refashion and ground it as a demand for racial, gender and economic civil rights. This demand would fundamentally alter how colleges and universities view themselves in society; rather than anointing the predetermined elite, they would be cultivating the best and brightest. Instead of relying on an ecosystem of exploiting minoritized students in the name of diversity work, institutions must see that the current political moment demands institutions take seriously how their existing political positions embody complicity and neutrality.

It’s time for students to actively ask whether your department or university has earned your time and commitment. There are thus far no systematic studies of the amount of service work that graduate students do. Yet if the trends seen at the faculty level -- where femme-identifying faculty, faculty of color and the intersections therein do a disproportionate amount of service work -- suggest anything, it is that these structural processes do not emerge at the faculty level but begin earlier in the pipeline. Whether 5 percent or 40 percent of graduate students are engaged in diversity work, the underlying labor structure enables institutions to leave students to lead the struggle until it is safe for the institution to take credit.

Given that diversity work never lived up to my expectations, I continued asking myself as a student, “How do I determine whether I invest in my department’s and university’s diversity work?” Neither of those entities is entitled to my time, especially since both of them tend to be powerfully invested in improving institutional rankings over actual quality. When I reframed the question of engagement, I realized that evaluating how a department or university treats its faculty of color and those of other minoritized backgrounds is indicative of its politics. While I previously saw negative treatment as a call to action, now I saw it more as the miner’s canary. If students and individual faculty members are the primary bulwarks against white supremacy on a campus, then the institution reveals its stance in this political moment.

Do I see the contributions of faculty members who identify from minoritized backgrounds being valued? What are the manifest politics that the faculty practice as it concerns the communities they are studying? Do I see research that has been historically and structurally excluded because of positivist epistemologies being centered and invested in? Do faculty members actively seek student input, and is this input then represented in department and university decisions?

Nowhere in my prior calculations did I ask these questions, or, equally as important, why individual students are called upon to fix institutional failures. As Ahmed explains, the diversity wall remains invisible to those who aren’t expected to do diversity work because they are aligned with the institution’s nebulous mission, and, as a result, free to distance themselves from diversity work. For me, realizing that I was confronting the wall while some of my peers would never even realize a wall existed was a turning point.

When I considered the history of diversity work in my respective units, I needed to divest. Did I see genuine efforts translate into substantive change over the years? Or I did see shallow, symbolic commitments that led to no change but plenty of rationalizations for why change is coming if we continue engaging? Did I see faculty members speaking their morals of justice into practice over time and challenging their unearned structural benefits, or did I see white moderates continuing to impede change? How do we even have conversations about when to start engaging when many of us get typecast as the “diversity student” from the moment faculty members tokenize our marginalization?

Such questions led me to consider what could happen if graduate students first demanded demonstrable progress before they ever engaged with any activities, particularly recruitment activities. And what could happen if faculty members had to take seriously the decades of scholarship on faculty of color and not leave this work to departmental staff and students? If students are bound by a moral imperative to do diversity work because the next generation should not have to continue to carry this burden, when do we stop pulling the institution forward and expect the institution to unambiguously lead?

Bio

Photo of Prabhdeep Kehal Prabhdeep Kehal (they/them) is a doctoral student in sociology at Brown University. Their research interests span racial theory, higher education and organizational theory in the tradition of Du Boisian sociology. An additional area of inquiry pertains to anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, and gender conformity within the Sikh and Sikh-American diaspora and how it manifests itself in advocacy. You can follow them on Twitter at @prabhbob.

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