Recently Jennifer Morton gave a talk at my university on the undermining of representation at elite universities. She argued that merely enacting affirmative action practices in the admissions process (i.e., making sure a certain percentage of the incoming class comes from some underrepresented group) will not necessarily lead to an increase in diversity.
Morton’s focus was primarily on the divide between those from an upper middle class background versus those from a low income background, and she noted two phenomena within the group of low income students in elite universities: firstly, that they try not to draw attention to themselves as low income students, and secondly, that they try to assimilate their interests and perspectives to better match those of their upper middle class peers. Thus the result of affirmative action (in this case), rather than increase diversity, is the assimilation of students of an underrepresented group into a homogeneous, upper middle class culture.
This part of Morton’s talk really struck me, and I was shocked at how well this captured my own experiences. I’m not from a low income background, but I’m a Filipino who’s been attending predominantly white academic institutions since high school. My (public) middle school was comprised overwhelmingly of people of color, with white students making up only 10% of the student population. Instead of continuing to a public high school with roughly the same demographics, my parents instead placed me at a private high school in which the majority of students were white and came from families with a much (much) higher average income than those of my middle school. It was a huge culture shock for me – one I wasn’t at all equipped to deal with.
I ended up doing exactly as Morton described: assimilating. My friend group (for most of high school, at least) was almost exclusively white and my hobbies, tastes, and even mannerisms changed to more closely mirror those of my peers’. A lot of this I carried into college with me, especially the first few years, and now I think it’s just part of who I am. I’ve been forcing myself to “fit in” for so long that I really don’t know what it’s like to not be a white-washed Asian.
But the past three years or so I’ve been really working to accept my Filipino/Asian heritage instead of actively trying to hide it. And I’m doing a lot better – even if some of the changes are only noticeable to me.
So anyways, all this is to say, if Morton’s argument can be generalized to me, it can probably be generalized to lots of other underrepresented groups (it’s worth stating explicitly here that the experiences of people from different marginalized/underrepresented/minority groups aren’t so straightforwardly comparable, and just because you’re part of an underrepresented group doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be part of any underrepresented group), and that’s a big problem. More needs to be done to diversify academia; affirmative action in the admissions process isn’t enough. Beyond that, we need to be actively working to make sure that these students feel accepted as they are and comfortable using their unique experiences and backgrounds to enrich the educational experience for everyone.
I’m not really sure how to best go about doing that, but it’s something I promise to keep as one of my primary goals throughout my entire academic career.