E-mails & Diversity & Assumptions -- Oh My!
by Brandon Wesley Dennis (Wes)
(First printed in The Voice; Vol. II, Issue 5.)

Itís easy to feel like youíre writing in vain when you have no indication that people are reading at all, or read but completely misunderstand, or read and understand but arenít concerned enough to give a decent response. But apparently someone is reading these articles.

The other day I got an e-mail confirmation of my removal from the African-American studentsí e-mail lists. If you recall my article "They NEED to See (You)" in the September 21, 2002, issue, I complained about having been placed on those e-mail lists without my consent for no other reason than that I checked one box on my application to Yale some years ago. I criticized the underlying assumption of my placement on the e-mail lists -- that the color of my skin somehow renders it a given that I would be interested in attending study breaks called "Da Hump" where fried chicken and greens and yams, etc., are served in abundance. (Did someone forget the watermelons? Oh lawd, doní tell me you done gone and forgot de watermelons! If youíre going to do something, be complete about it.)

Well, I appreciate the knowledge that someone besides Cristine Oh finally read that article and was moved to act. On the other hand, given that this action was probably performed by someone in charge of making the lists -- and of writing e-mails that tell people "they need to see you" just because of the color of your skin -- a more satisfying action would have been preferable. Namely, I would have preferred a letter to the editor: a written justification of these e-mails that essentially tell students how they should be behaving and what they should be interested in simply because of the color of their skin. I would have preferred a justification for automatically putting students on the Af-Am list -- with all of its cultural assumptions -- simply because they checked a box that only indicates ethnic background in a shallow, generalized sense. For example, Iíve never met any descendants from Africa, nor do I know of any, nor have they influenced me in any direct or palpable manner. However, my maternal great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, my maternal great-great-grandfather was Ďwhiteí, and though I know very little else regarding my ancestry, the light skin and phenotypic nuances of many of my family members suggest an ancestry far more diverse than the term "African-American" implies. And even this limited ancestral knowledge says nothing about my own cultural identification or interests.

To be honest, shortly after I wrote that editorial, I did a bit of digging and discovered how to remove myself from the e-mail list. The point is not that it was possible for me to unsubscribe to the list, but that I was placed on that list -- grouped and categorized; in a sense, stereotyped -- simply because I checked a box on my Yale application. But it does make it worse that finding out how to remove myself from the list actually took effort on my part. You donít explicitly request e-mail advertisements (read: spam), but if you scroll to the bottom of those ads there are always helpful instructions on how to unsubscribe from the advertiser. If youíre going to send someone something that he/she didnít ask for, and you plan to continue doing so, you should at least give your target a chance to say, "No thanks, buddy."

However, after having written that editorial -- in which I criticized not only the assumption that motivated my inclusion on the list, but also the content of the e-mails themselves -- I decided Iíd stay on the list and collect examples that might come in handy for future editorials. (If youíre interested, go to http://quickgr.its.yale.edu/cgi-bin/listproc_subscriber/ and get a list of the lists. Then stick yourself on all of the ones you think might be interesting for whatever reason, like, say, for picking apart and criticizing. And then write editorials that someone will eventually read.) So I couldnít complain that I continued to receive the e-mails, but that was hardly a part of my criticism in the first place. And now, again, I am removed from the list without ever being asked if I wanted to be removed from it. For all of my mysterious benefactorís effort, a justification for the deleterious implications and assumptions made within the e-mails has yet to be offered.

What would be nice is a justification for the careless way the word "diversity" is thrown around. One of the last e-mails I received before my untimely removal from the list asked the question, with respect to the Yale community, "How diverse are we?" Granted, itís a good question, but it motivates another: "What exactly do you mean by Ďdiversityí?" If youíre talking about ethnic diversity -- which is often the case -- who cares how diverse we are? That diversity is shallow and ultimately meaningless.

"No," someone will interject, "we mean cultural diversity." Fine, that works. But you donít learn about that by looking at the color of someoneís skin or by seeking cultural meaning in a checked box that didnít ask about culture to begin with. You find out about cultural diversity -- as something that actually has some relevant connection to a personís beliefs, interests, personality and so forth -- the same way you find out about any other sort of personal diversity. You donít make assumptions, you ask questions. And in asking those questions, you make a conscious effort to avoid making assumptions -- for example, posting flyers that everyone can see, having a website that everyone can visit, sending e-mail notifications included in college Mastersí notices, rather than to persons based on checked boxes. Now, many cultural organizations already do these things, and thatís great. But too often assumptions about ethnicity and its fundamental relationship to culture are bound up with the spirit of the organization -- or at least its most active participants. This must be remedied.

But someone here will suggest that Iím going too far with reference to making assumptions. "Isnít it valid to make some assumptions about a person based on the color of that personís skin? What about groups of people in this respect, say, regarding shared experiences?" Certainly itís valid to assume that people with the "same" cultural background and identity have shared similar experiences. But it isnít valid to make assumptions about a personís cultural background or identity -- that personís group identification -- based on the color of that personís skin. Still, is it valid to assume that even people with the same (generally recognized) skin color have had certain shared experiences?

After all, people who are classified as members of distinctive social groups society are often treated differently, and this is especially true of Ďracialí group classifications. And that is precisely the only valid assumption that one can make based on a personís skin color: that in some way this person has been treated differently because of his/her skin color. And with respect to complexions that are not Ďwhiteí, you can legitimately assume that, given the deep-rooted and often subconscious prejudice within American society, because this person is not Ďwhiteí, this person has probably been mistreated for that reason. So, most likely, all persons who have the "same" skin color -- or any skin color other than Ďwhiteí -- have in common the shared experience of having been victims of some sort of discrimination.

Given this realization, to make reference to my previous article, I understand the motivation behind such statements as "they need to see you," speaking of freshmen needing to seeing upperclassmen with a similar ethnic background. They might need hope and reassurance that someone with the same social "disadvantage" can succeed at a place like Yale. For people who have undoubtedly been told, "You donít belong here," at one time or another because of the color of their skin, to see someone else who does belong is reassuring. To employ a simple example, I have been at comic conventions where people run up to me and say, "Hey, another black dude!" I understand. But do I give them hugs? Slap them five? No. I sneer and walk away. Why? Well, at these comic conventions, I might note the presence of other ethnic minorities and experience a flicker of hope for a future where people wonít let their skin color define their interests. But I donít make any assumptions about these particular people (except that their skin color didnít keep them from attending a comic convention because they "belong" at a rap concert instead). Iím much more likely to walk up to a guy with bleached hair, plastic fangs, and a trench coat, because there it is valid to assume that this guy is a Buffy fan too. (Maybe not, but at least I can ask about what he was actually going for with his interesting look.) Regardless, his skin color is not an issue. Now, if there are visual cues about an ethnic minority that lead me to believe we might have similar interests, I might decide to go and chat him up. But Iíd never even consider approaching him with, "Hey, another black dude!" or "Yo, my brother!" I recognize that heís probably been treated differently because of his skin color. Iíve had the same experience. Itís not fun -- even when the people mean well -- because I recognize that theyíre still treating me differently because of the color of my skin. So why the hell would I continue it? To assume anything about the personalities of people based on the color of their skin is misguided (not to mention imprecise) at best and offensive at worst.

True, there may be a correlation of sorts between skin color and cultural identity. But to assume that the connection between them is necessary, and therefore to treat people differently based on the color of their skin, is discrimination, regardless of whether the intent is Ďpositiveí or otherwise. To look at the color of a personís skin and say, "You belong here," is just as deleterious as saying, "You donít belong here," because both statements regard skin color as an acceptable determinant of identity and as a justifiable method of social classification. Both statements treat superficial diversity as being necessarily tied to cultural diversity and personality. And insofar as both statements are motivated by assumptions based the color of a personís skin, both statements are wrong. Both statements should be erased from social interaction.

Diversity -- diversity of ideas and perspectives -- is a worthy goal, but only insofar as these diverse viewpoints are shared and discussed. But this end cannot be achieved unless we recognize that despite all of our individual and cultural diversity we share one basic similarity: we are all people. People do not enjoy being stereotyped, least of all because of something as shallow and arbitrary as skin color. People do not enjoy being mistreated, regardless of the intent behind that mistreatment. People do not fit neatly into checked boxes.

-- Wes --