• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Conversations on Diversity, a New Blog

Eboo Patel introduces his new platform to discuss the full diversity of diversity issues on campuses.

January 22, 2018

About two minutes into the trailer for Michael Sandel’s video series on “Justice” (based on his famed class at Harvard), a pair of students argue about the role that race should play in college admissions. One says that discrimination based on race is always wrong, the other says that white people have discriminated in favor of themselves for so long that a systemic correction like race-based affirmative action is necessary.

An important conversation, one that I have strong views about (on the liberal side). But the territory is pretty familiar.  

Instead of continuing this thread of discussion, the trailer then cuts to Sandel asking a different question to his lecture hall of Harvard students: How many of you are the oldest child in your family? Well over half the hands go up.

The first time I watched the video, I was so drawn in by the question that I almost raised my hand while staring at the screen. Birth order as a significant dimension of identity – that was new, and fascinating.

I know for sure that being the eldest child in my family has had a profound influence on what my parents expected from me, and therefore what I expected from myself, and therefore what teachers and coaches expected, and therefore my life outcomes.

Were there structural elements at play also, privileges associated with first born status implicitly baked in to how various systems operate? Did other societies do it differently, perhaps more fairly, perhaps less?  How much did my identity as the eldest count relative to the various other identities I carry – brown-skinned second generation Indian American, male, straight, Ismaili Muslim, middle class, grad school educated, urban, Midwestern?

In the literally thousands of conversations that I’ve had about diversity on campus, birth order as a significant dimension of identity has never come up. Not even once. This is the case even though there is a rich academic literature on birth order, and people refer to its importance casually all the time (how their role as the “baby” in the family shaped their life, the various challenges that accompany being a middle child, etc).

So why is birth order so infrequently mentioned in the “diversity” conversation?

Sandel – both a towering intellectual and a master educator – had expanded my thinking with an astute observation and a pointed question. I didn’t find myself trying to shout Sandel down in my head, I found myself thinking in new ways and having more interesting conversations with people about identity.

Isn’t making astute observations and asking pointed questions in order to catalyze new thinking and foster interesting conversations what college campuses are all about?    

That is what I am setting out to do in this new blog for Inside Higher Ed, “Conversations on Diversity.”. As someone who believes that campuses function as essential laboratories for our diverse democracy, I’d like to bring a set of observations and questions about identity issues and the spirit of conversation to these pages.   

It was Martin Marty (another towering intellectual and master educator) who first pointed out to me that observation, question and conversation are intimately linked. Arguments tend to happen when people are fixated on conclusions. When we play the argument-conclusion game, lines get drawn, tribes arise, weapons are chosen and a war of sorts commences. In recent years, some of the battles around diversity have been more hurtful than helpful.

The observation-question-conversation approach is very different from the argument-conclusion mode. It does not mainly pursue familiar cases or shout predictable interpretations to reinforce an existing orthodoxy. Instead it wanders off the range looking for cases harder to classify on first sight and wonders aloud about interpretations outside the standard basket of explanations. Its purpose is interesting thinking and friendly conversation. 


A bit about my background, perspective and current position. As an undergraduate in the mid-1990s, I was awakened to issues of race, gender, class and sexuality. I remember typing away at a paper in the computer lab at the University of Illinois, my fingers flying across the keyboard, when I looked over and saw an African American classmate peck-peck-pecking away at the same assignment, her eyes searching for the right letter.

I had learned a great deal from her comments in class so her solo-finger typing surprised me. It must have been obvious because she shot me a frustrated look and asked the question, “How many computers did your high school have? Mine had two.”

Why did I think typing fast and being smart were connected? An early lesson in race, class and privilege.

It didn’t take long for me to learn more such lessons, for the sheer accumulation of these to harden into a worldview, and for that worldview to be weaponized in the form of long lectures to my suburban father about his lack of people of color consciousness.

My dad was generally good natured about these scoldings, but one Sunday my self-righteousness must have been too much for him and he turned the tables on me, “For all you talk about diversity issues, why don’t you ever mention the dimension of identity that’s driving world affairs – religion. Next time you want to give me a diversity lecture, first tell me how you and your college friends are going to solve conflicts between different religions.”

The following week Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a radicalized member of his own religious community. I didn’t admit it to my dad for the longest time, but he was absolutely right – I had thought very little about religion, even though it was an identity that animated everything from social justice movements to civil wars.

My learnings over the course of many such experiences can be summed up as follows: 

  • Identities matter;
  • Do not let an obsession with the identities that I currently believe matter obscure seeing or thinking about other identities that might matter in any given situation;
  • While identities always matter, other things matter too, like the facts in the Duke lacrosse case;
  • Self-righteousness on my part will provoke self-righteousness on the part of my interlocutor and it will probably change an interesting conversation into a frustrating argument;
  • It’s important to ask pointed questions about other paradigms and worldviews, but the sine quo non of the intellectual is asking questions of one’s own paradigm, an ethic that is especially important on a college campus. 

I’ve had the great good fortune to marry these learnings into a career. As founder and president of an organization called Interfaith Youth Core, my job is to help campuses develop high quality, sustainable programs that engage religious diversity, especially as it intersects with other identities. Practically speaking, that means that I visit about 25 campuses a year to talk, and listen, about diversity issues. Those campus visits are the source of many of the observations and questions I will bring here.

As this is a blog, I will look to write at least weekly and perhaps more frequently. Posts will typically be a couple of paragraphs long and generally unfinished, which is to say that they will not reach a satisfying conclusion or attempt an all-encompassing explanation. Instead, I’ll tell a story about some identity/diversity issue I’ve encountered that struck me as “off the range” and try to raise some interesting questions.

I hope that this will be fun for me and interesting for you, that some of the observations and questions presented here might be useful for your classrooms or co-curricular programs, and above all that the process furthers new thinking and friendly conversation. 



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