When I speak to students and colleagues at the Graduate Institute, we all agree that diversity is one of our main strengths. At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, many of us are also deeply frustrated about our difficulties in truly engaging with it.
The idea that diversity is an added value to education can be traced back to the 1978 US Supreme Court’s University of California vs. Bakke decision. In that decision, considering “race” in college admission was deemed legal, not because of the need to redress past discrimination against African Americans nor to create social inclusion but due to the value of diversity as a “compelling interest” that would benefit all students. Diversity, therefore, was not only about racial inclusion, but about bringing different perspectives about the world to the educational process.
Since then, the idea of diversity has travelled the world but many have become frustrated with it. Some argue that diversity limits social inclusion to tokenism or to what the Indian Supreme Court in the 1990s termed a “creamy layer,” due to its lack of class and socioeconomic considerations. Others argue that diversity does not mean anything if whiteness remains the norm and differences have to be constantly contextualised (where are you from?), justified (how can you be here?) and often essentialised (are you “really” the other?). As student collectives in Brazilian Federal Universities have recently voiced, it is not enough to have quotas for black and low-income students, if institutions themselves are not decolonialised.
As we think about diversity this month, let’s remember that diversity has weak and strong versions. In its weak form, bringing diversity is simply seeing a colour palette or different accents in the classroom. Such a weak version can co-exist with stereotyping and stigmatisation. We “include” those who we see as “different” in our classrooms but still assume and often contribute to reproducing their subordination. In its strong and more desirable version, diversity creates a space in which different perspectives and ways of seeing in the world can be learned. The strong version of diversity needs the active engagement of everyone and institutional practices that encourage horizontal exchanges. Only embracing this strong version of diversity will allow us to remain a truly excellent and increasingly global Institute.