The Diversity Myth

Colorado College is not a perfect institution. We’ve got problems, and we’ve had them for a while. Jill Tiefenthaler did a “year of listening” when she arrived at CC. She says that she heard one consistent message: We need more diversity. That means everyone (students, faculty, staff, alumni and board members) thought that diversity by itself was going to help CC. But did anyone actually stop to wonder what that meant? What exactly is diversity? Is it just inviting different people into the community? Is it something we mobilize in defense of our whiteness, as some suggest? Is it nothing more than an advertising tactic used to attract applicants? Or is it—can it be—something we live? Furthermore, how do we define the “we” that’s being diversified? What are we inviting people to join in the first place?

Major efforts to diversify CC as an institution started after Tiefenthaler joined us in 2011. After she heard the cry for more diversity, she started making changes. On the Diversity page of CC’s website, we report that in 2004, 14.3 percent of students identified as American ethnic minorities. In 2014, 24.7 percent of students identified as American ethnic minorities. In 2004, 1.7 percent of students were international. And again that figure rose to 6.4 percent in 2014. While these changes indicate institutional efforts to diversify CC, we certainly have plenty of room to grow. We are still an overwhelmingly white institution. The Office of Institutional Planning & Effectiveness reports that currently 77.3 percent of staff, 72.5 percent of faculty, and 65.5 percent of students “identify as SOLELY white,” compared to 63 percent of he total U.S. population. In the same report, when respondents are given the opportunity to select more than one race, the figures grow: 84.7 percent of staff, 74.8 percent of faculty, and 81 percent of students all identify that white is a component of our race identity. Whiteness comprises an overwhelming proportion of CC. Furthermore, we are and historically have been predominantly wealthy. 54 percent of students attending this year received no financial aid to help pay for our $66,000 price tag. At least we make every attempt to meet demonstrated need for those who do apply for financial aid. But at 48.4 percent, the largest group of students receiving financial aid is solely white. 

Given that CC is predominantly white and wealthy, how do we justify asking historically marginalized people to suddenly culturally identify with “us” and view CC as an inviting home?

Our problem goes deeper than students, faculty and staff. Demographic information for our Board of Trustees is not available. Our website claims that, “As a community that embraces transparency and accountability, it is in our best interest as an organization to be clear about who is responsible for what decisions,” so it might seem surprising that we don’t track the diversity of one of our institution’s main governing bodies. Associate Vice President of the Office of Institutional Planning & Effectiveness, Lyrae A. Williams said, “I believe the college used to collect demographic information on our trustees, however with some of the transition in the office a few years ago, I am guessing it fell through the cracks.” One Board member who requested to remain anonymous was troubled to learn that CC doesn’t track the racial diversity of the Board and estimated that there are only three, maybe four black trustees. If this is true, it means that of the 47 Trustees listed on the website, only nine percent are black. For comparison, 12.3% of the U.S. population is black.

Ryan Haygood ’97, a black man, recently joined the Board at the behest of President Tiefenthaler. As an undergraduate student at CC, Ryan co-founded the Glass House, now a permanent fixture in Residential Life. Its goal was, and still is, to support racial and ethnic diversity and intercultural learning among Colorado College students. Haygood remains passionate about racial diversity, and it’s one of the issues that led him to join Colorado College’s Board. “I joined the board because attending the College was a transformative experience for me, and it prepared me to pursue a career as national litigator who advances racial justice for a living through the courts,” he said. “I am passionate,” he added, “about the College providing that experience to other students of color who, like me, wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to attend college.” While our lack of demographic tracking may be an institutional error, Associate Vice President Williams said “we will explore gathering demographic information on the college’s trustees beginning in June 2017.” 

It seems that, in our efforts to diversify ourselves, no one thought to include the Board of Trustees. Is this because when we imagine the Board, it is one of our remaining white, wealthy bastions of privilege? CC’s “Diversity Commitment” begins: “As we celebrate the increasing diversity of students, faculty and staff at Colorado College…” The glaring omission of the Board of Trustees from our commitment is a problem. We have not committed to the diversity of a governing body that is responsible for making decisions about Board of Trustee Membership, Endowment Policies, Promotion and Tenure for Faculty, Strategies for Long-range Planning, and Tuition and Room & Board Charges. Our failure to include the Board in our Diversity commitment represents our own negligence. We must ask ourselves: are we sincere about diversity at CC, or are we only interested in making cosmetic changes to our most visible parts? 

On the surface, it seems like the colloquial “We” into which we invite people is white and wealthy. So what? Why is this so difficult a reality for us to accept? Accepting the facts is the first step to enacting real change.

While our efforts to diversify CC as a whole have begun, there are plenty of specific areas that are still overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Take, for example, our sports programs. Of the teams that are most visible—Men’s Hockey, Men’s Lacrosse, and Women’s Soccer—hockey and lacrosse present big problems for diversification, and the third simply falls short. Hockey is not just an overwhelmingly white sport, but, given its significant startup costs, it’s also a wealthy one. Of our 31 hockey players, only one identifies as an American ethnic minority. Men’s Lacrosse is also white and wealthy: just three out of 40 players identify as American ethnic minorities. Women’s soccer has lower startup costs, and its global popularity presents a significant opportunity for diverse recruitment. Yet only two of our 22 female soccer players identify as American ethnic minorities and only three are international. 

We’ve started a processes of diversification. But for some reason, we are shocked or offended when we are reminded that we haven’t made it to our goal yet. Maybe that’s because we don’t have a goal. Is our aim equal racial distribution across all groups? Is it a socioeconomic distribution that matches that of the US (only 1 percent of us should come from the top 1 percent)? Haygood expressed his hopes for what our goals might look like. “I am excited about the College’s pursuit of racial diversity on campus,” he said, “[a diversity] that reflects the broader diversity of the City, the State, and ultimately the world.” So far, though, CC has yet to come up with specific goals with which to measure our efforts to diversify.

* * *

Before any of us decided to come here, we imagined the community of CC. It doesn’t matter if we were focused on the intellectual or social community—we imagined ourselves here and how we might fit in. When we finally arrived, we were forced to measure our experience against our expectations. Unfortunately, some of us suddenly faced a large gap between the two. The expectations and realities have been starkly different for marginalized people, privileged people, those in the middle, and the institution itself.

Those of us from underrepresented, underprivileged and historically marginalized backgrounds saw brochures of CC, maybe got lucky enough to visit campus, and arrived full of hope. For these students, the narrative is, “we get to be here.” It’s a gift. We’ve worked hard to get here, and our hard work has paid off. And now we get access to an amazing education. We’re invested in our classes and learning because we’re working to transcend our historical marginalization. We arrive at CC believing in education and thinking that we’ve found a new home in a diverse liberal community. But when we get here, we see and experience white, wealthy, empty-headed privilege still in full operation. We search for the resources to perform well in a setting that still communicates our glaring differences. What we hoped might be the end of our struggle, wasn’t. And now we’re back in survival mode because there are limited spaces for a full, flourishing expression of our identities. So we have some unmet expectations. But we have to ask ourselves if those expectations were realistic in the first place. At the opposite pole, others of us saw CC not as a gift, but as a right. 

Those of us from white, wealthy, and privileged backgrounds saw CC as the right next step. This is where we go when we want to get a degree while still having a vacation every month. Our families pay $66,000 a year for us to come here, so everything is supposed to be handed to us: a social life, good food, people to clean up after us, good grades, pristine amenities and free reign to have fun. Unlike some at this school, we’re meant to be here. It’s the right thing—it’s an obligatory step to being successful. Our privileged position, access to good schools, tutoring, and ACT/SAT prep has taught us that the system is designed for our benefit. We expect to inevitably be granted our degrees because that is what happens in college. During our four years, we also get to run around, have fun, get wasted, be irresponsible and generally live in gleeful ignorance of people different from us. Then, even when issues of diversity are brought to our attention, we assume that the system will help us change because it’s been designed to work for us, by us. And when our privilege is directly challenged, suddenly we feel muffled or oppressed. What that feeling actually is, is us learning that our privilege can no longer operate how it used to, and feeling resentful about “losing” our power. So we are also faced with unmet expectations. But our expectations were also unrealistic.

Then there are those of us who lie on a spectrum between these two poles. We experience some measure of difference, but also benefit from our ability to pass, from our proximity to privilege, to whiteness. We knew about social injustice and the horrors of racism before we arrived. We expect a lot of ourselves, and we want to help diversity in thoughtful and informed ways. Our overwhelming narrative is, “we are trying.” We hoped that college was going to be an opportunity to address some of the issues we observed in the world. We acknowledge our privilege (at least some of it); we acknowledge the changes that need to happen. So we try to make friends and build bridges, but at times it seems like the only people we end up talking to are others who are also just trying to build bridges. Privileged students aren’t interested in learning anything different or letting go of their power. And historically marginalized students are the victims of ongoing violence; they mustn’t be expected to do all the work of reconciliation. After we try to move an entire institution for a few semesters, we grow tired. Sometimes it’s easier to relax into our proximity to privilege until we can recharge and continue trying. 

  The institution expected that we would magically get better with more diversity. As if the Virtues of Diversity and Inclusion would function on their own and require nothing more than a little guidance from administrators. So we brought in Dr. Buckley and re-named the Butler Center—completely logical steps for a white, wealthy, privileged institution. Rather than integrate efforts of diversity and inclusion at every level, we set up a special office for the special population so that they can take care of “those students.” This is why the Butler Center is so emphatic about serving everyone at CC. But even so, the only students interested in going there seem to be the “other” students. The institution has left the overwhelmingly white and obviously privileged student body alone. Sure, we created some mandatory “S” and “G” credit classes to teach us about “social inequality” and “global cultures,” but those classroom inquiries are made into concepts of oppressed people, groups, and populations—all while maintaining a safe, objective, and intellectual distance from having to deal directly with oppression, racism, and their ensuing violence.

It’s almost as if we were expected to know how to live with difference. We thought that by mixing the narratives of the “get to be here group,” the group that’s “meant” to be here and the group of those trying, everyone would magically get along. Despite good intentions and cursory gestures, our actions communicate that we expected new and diverse others to (at best) add to the diversity melting pot, or (at worst) assimilate into an overwhelmingly white, wealthy, heteronormative culture. No one felt a need to address the main, overwhelmingly white student body to deal with the ways in which we construct, perpetuate and enact racism and discrimination. We seem to have thought that diversity would mystically absolve us of our past sins once we brought it to campus.

In other words, although we have been growing more diverse, none of us has a clue what to do with diversity. Because the college wasn’t prepared to handle diversity, our efforts have resulted in a slew of now-notorious events. The sad reality about these phenomena is that they are simply the most recent manifestations in a long history of discrimination, violence and racism.

* * *

Let’s recount some of the most recent incidents. In May ‘14, Cipher published an article by Han Styles titled, “Race and Racism at Colorado College.” The piece brought CC’s attention to the many incidents and effects of racism on campus. Then there was the Yik-Yak incident that one comment aptly called, “RaceWar! RaceWar! RaceWar!” Spring ’16: the Catalyst reported that students (again) had decided to desecrate the Tipi erected in front of Worner and Cipher published two articles by Mohammad Mia about the death of whiteness. Fall ’16: two LLC’s were defaced and violated in the wake of President Trump’s election. 

This past February, the New York Times published a piece that forced us to at least begin to reckon with our lacking socioeconomic diversity. And throughout this time, incidents of micro-aggressions, implicit or explicit discrimination and violence have undoubtedly continued without gaining the attention of the entire campus.  

* * *

What narrative do these recent events create? When placed in succession, they do three things: One, they challenge any sense of an idealistically inclusive and diverse community. Two, they reveal that we as a community lack the skills to be diverse and inclusive. Three, they show that the institution’s attempts at inclusion have indirectly brought violence to those we invite to campus. We must confront the impacts of our actions versus their intent. When events unfold that seem to go against who we think we are—or who we think we should be—outrage, pain, disbelief and violence ensue. But our initial reactions to these events suffer from the distortion of proximity. This is reinforced by the Block Plan, which makes our vision myopic and precludes meaningful engagement. 

Our concerted efforts to respond to the Yik-Yak incident as a community were admirable at the time. Never before had we attempted to bring the entire campus together and hold each other accountable. Donna Haraway, Distinguished Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz and CC alum, attended the community gathering. She was on campus to give the first Monday talk, which was canceled. She expressed pride in her alma mater’s efforts to engage the entirety of CC. Ultimately, though, she was “disappointed by the missed opportunity for more active collective engagement.”

* * *

Thankfully, some things have started to change. This past fall was the first time first-year students were provided with a more realistic narrative of what CC will be like. Dr. Buckley, speaking to the entire first-year class, said, “this is what the practice of diversity is about at its core: positioning yourself to learn, to accept responsibility, to redress, to contribute to something bigger than yourself, to serve, to work, to listen, to examine, to engage.” 

We must take Dr. Buckley’s message and, as a community, begin to live it. 

Little has been done to actually take care of diversity, to nurture it. If it’s a good thing and we want more of it, we have to care for it. But our approach has been limited. We need to go beyond the Butler Center, which remains an optional, student development resource. According to our Diversity Commitment, “we stand committed to creat[ing] a campus community that is broadly accessible to individuals of diverse backgrounds, experiences and aspirations. And foster an equitable intellectual and social climate that is inclusive, and respectful of human dignity.” This is empty rhetoric so long as we lack the skills to actually be inclusive and respectful. 

First, let’s change the expectations: This is going to be hard, messy and will require both interaction and vulnerability. There will be difficulties of communication; feelings will get hurt; assumptions and life perspectives will be challenged. The world that lies beyond graduation looks nothing like a utopian reality, so why try to enforce a vision of idealistic perfection? College is meant to prepare us to go out and be successful in life, but sometimes we rigorously deny that such a life requires learning how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. While safe spaces are imperative, spaces for mutually respectful confrontation are equally important. And that confrontation has to move beyond intellectualization in the classroom. If we continue to reinforce the idea that difficult interactions are bad and should be avoided, then how do we ever expect to impart skills that will teach us to deal with them?

I’m not saying that it always has to be hard. Once we start learning how to talk with difference, how to acknowledge it, respect it and then challenge it together—growth becomes the expectation. That’s when we move with each other toward excellence. Using entirely new epistemological framings, we would be prepared for a world of growing interconnected differences. It is only with new skills that we can actually create the inclusive community that we’re aiming for. 

The foundation of the liberal arts, Enkuklios Paideia—(education in a circle), was to impart a set of indispensable skills for free citizens to participate in society. Whether we conceive our society to be our neighborhoods, the nation or the globe, the ability to live with and practice diversity is rapidly becoming one of those urgent skills. We must have classes to learn it.

Further, these classes cannot be optional—unless we want to continue doing harm to our community members. The only academic obligations we have at CC are all-college requirements, which are designed to give us a well-rounded education. Skills for practicing diversity must be included.

* * *

We have to continue to change. Every group and every individual:

Board of Trustees, We need you to commit to the same diversification that we seek as an institutional whole. All parties responsible for our shared governance ought to reflect our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We require you to track and publicize your racial, ethnic and gender diversity numbers so that We can hold you accountable. 

Administration and staff, We need you to continue your efforts to lead diversification on campus and take them one step further. Recognize all the ways, including policies and actions, that we reinforce a system of white, wealthy privilege, and then work to change them. We require you to both establish and reinforce a pluralistic community of difference, not just through words, but through actions. This means being clear and concise about our expectations: that everyone We invite ought to be not only respectful of others, but also committed to a pluralistic and interactional approach to education. Additionally, we require you to establish institutional goals for diversification. Whether it be that We reflect the diversity of our city or that of the nation, there must be a stated goal against which We can measure our efforts. 

Faculty, We need you to create all-college requirements that educate us in difference, pluralism and diversity, and impart the skills for how to interact with it in constructive ways. That means learning not only the history of marginalization, but also learning communication skills for addressing it—skills like dialoguing, for example. We require an adjunct class that must be taken during the entire first semester for all first-years and transfers: a class that communicates expectations clearly, teaches dialoguing skills, and provides opportunities to build relationships around difference. Skill acquisition and retention requires repetition and practice. To further reinforce our commitment to community, CC ought to require that sophomores, juniors, and seniors join these adjunct relationship-building dialogue classes for at least one block every year. 

Students, We are required to be committed to each other in this process. We must be committed to building real world relationships and to stop functioning as if they happen by themselves. We need to commit to interacting with each other and our differences, off anonymous or bodiless platforms like Facebook. That means putting down our phones during breaks and talking with our classmates. That means speaking up when We witness micro-aggressions. That means that We are dedicated to having difficult, uncomfortable conversations. 

We don’t want or need a crusade to assimilate into a homogeneous mass, but We must commit to at least talking to each other and integrating the spaces that continue to be bastions of white, wealthy privilege. We can do this while maintaining safe-spaces because we need people who can comfort us in times of sorrow, stand by us in times of challenge, and celebrate us in times of joy. Pluralistic interaction, safe-spaces, and freedom of expression are not mutually exclusive realties, and we have to stop treating them like they are.

My deep love and appreciation for this community has motivated me to make sure that we can continue to improve ourselves. I have immense gratitude for my two and a half years here as a gay, queer, non-traditional transfer student with full financial need. I am indebted to CC in ways I have not even begun to understand. While this article is, I hope, a significant step for us, there is so much more to consider. I’m left wondering if we focus too much on racial diversity at the expense of considering religious, age-based and dis/ability diversity. We never seem to talk about other forms of diversity. And when it comes to non-heteronormative sexual and gender diversity, most of us are apathetic. (Straight boys who “play with their sexual fluidity” at parties to pick up girls: you do not count.) Is racial diversity, I wonder, the only diversity that matters because it’s the only diversity that we can see?

By taking the steps I have outlined, we can begin moving toward a diversity that goes beyond admission numbers and enters the practice of living in our community. If we do not take the requisite steps, our attempts to diversify will continue to be at the expense of those we invite to campus from historically marginalized backgrounds. By avoiding the serious task of teaching people how to handle diversity, we allow a history of violence against communities that aren’t white, privileged, and wealthy to continue. A recent alum and student of color, Mohammad Mia ‘16, expressed his view of recent events similarly, saying, “The repetition of such incidents is evidence of the fact that they function for a particular necessity. The necessity of these actions is to practice and maintain Racism (White Supremacy) and a social order founded upon these beliefs. So long as these incidents occur and the unexamined Whiteness persists, then they will continue indefinitely.” We are obligated to make CC a place of learning, a place for growth and a place of excellence for each of us. We cannot abandon each other in this process. We cannot turn away and reduce it to someone else’s problem. It’s a problem for us. We must learn to “stay with the trouble.” 

Professor Emeritus of History at Grinnell, George A. Drake recently visited campus. Drake served as the Dean of Colorado College when we instituted the Block Plan almost 50 years ago in 1970. Drake recounted some of the contentious conversations around instituting the Block Plan. He said that Lloyd Edson Worner, the President of the College, reminded everyone that “we are a private college and can do things our own way. We’re not held to the same standards as state schools.” Worner was a strong advocate for the Block Plan. The only CC alum to ever serve as President, Worner asked, “Do we want to continue to go into the next 100 years in the same way we’ve done the last 100?” In the spirit of President Worner and the approaching 50 year anniversary of the Block Plan, I ask us all—Do we want to continue to go into the next 150 years in the same way we’ve done the last 150?


Part of the Obvious issue