I was recently talking to a close friend of mine who is coming to the end of their first year at law school. Her class is composed of approximately 120 people from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities. Racial tension have mounted consistently throughout the year, largely it would seem due to a couple of large personalities with strong, almost militant opinions. News of the class tension has made its way up the chain of command to the Dean. Students have been sent to diversity awareness days and a meeting was recently setup between the students and faculty in an attempt to solve the problem, which is threatening to fracture the class.
My friend’s student/faculty meeting appeared to prove fruitless, although a number of comments and suggestions were made. Some suggested that the issue was one of diversity and that to solve it further diversity should be encouraged. Further to this, it was suggested that diversity classes and events should become mandatory. Others felt that people simply needed to demonstrate more tolerance, which was immediately counteracted by several individuals who believed that tolerance was not sufficient. Tolerance they said only made things worse because it encouraged the idea that people did not need to be accepting of others, but simply “put up with them”. Another individual felt that the many student clubs encouraged segregation and caused tension, but the suggestion that clubs be removed was met by some with complete disdain. The discussion continued, but these were the points that stuck out to me.
Given the recent discussions in class regarding diversity, cultural location and potential sources of conflict, I got to thinking about my own views on the issues raised. Firstly, the very idea of solving issues of tension resulting from diversity, by attempting to add further diversity before having tackled the underlying causes of the tension seems completely counterintuitive. Perhaps force-feeding people diversity lessons and events is the answer. There may be some merit to this idea, to a point. Making a diversity event/class mandatory upon entry to a work or University place to set the institutes expected standards from individuals seems reasonable. However, repeatedly pushing such events on people will only make them apathetic toward issues of diversity, tolerance and acceptance.
The issue of tolerance being wrong and that people must instead accept others and their respective differences is an interesting one. The idea that tolerance is wrong surely goes against the idea of a free democracy. It might sound ideal for everyone to agree, particularly when it comes to tensions surrounding diversity, but we certainly cannot, nor should we try, to force people in to acceptance. Tolerance allows us to disagree, to keep our views and ideas on something, but without acting on them. Tolerance is in a way a form of acceptance. It says that I might not like it, but it is how it is and I can accept that. It is true that there are certain topics, particularly relating to race for example, where we should hope that tolerance will gradually be replaced by true acceptance, but society must do this gradually.
The idea of segregation through clubs was I think an accurate one. Clubs are positive things that help bond and unite us around common goals, ideas and interests. However, what if the common denominator in a group, not by chance but by intent, is skin color. This I believe is segregation. I raise this because a large part of the tension at my friend’s law school relates to a law club for black students. You are unlikely to find many “white” clubs, but there are many “black” and “Hispanic” clubs. I am not suggesting the need for Caucasian based clubs, the very opposite in fact, nor am I ignoring that just because a club doesn’t specify itself as being white, black or Hispanic that it does not have ulterior motives or ideals that bind it together. I am also sympathetic to the idea that minorities may feel the need for these groups because they are in a minority. My point is that, in the case of skin color, if the aim is to move away from defining and judging people based on the type and concentration of melanin in ones body, then surely the creation of groups which divide based purely on skin color is wrong. It encourages a “them and us” mentality while facilitating the avoidance of interaction. This is not the sole rout of diversity related tension, but certainly plays a significant part. I have no doubt that this will make sense to some people, while the very suggestion will horrify others.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that the platform of debate for the issue is not an equal one. This was highlighted talking to my friend who told of how some suggestions and ideas were met with hostility. Other seemingly good practical views as well as a few uncomfortable home truths were not discussed. Instead they were held back and only talked of in private through fear of being misunderstood and/or accused of prejudice. Most of us wish to remove tension resulting from diversity, be that racism, homophobia or religious prejudice and achieve a society where we can see past such superficial differences. However, until all groups are given equality on the debating stage and allowed to exercise their right to freedom of speech without being shut down and closed out by knee jerk or self serving accusations of racism, homophobia or extremism, for example, then the underlying issues will not and cannot be addressed and solved.