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Diversity, weak term to describe bare minimum support

Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand

If any historian needs a time capsule of China from fifteen years ago, that would be me. Immigrating to the U.S. at four years old, I was like an astronaut leaving Earth with a tiny suitcase from my past life — foods, movies and cultural values all frozen in the year of 2000.

A steaming bowl of hotpot with my roommate this semester threw that history into rapid fast-forward. Hotpot is exactly what it sounds like: throwing a ton of meat and vegetables into one large boiling pot. My roommate asked me if there were any Chinese shows I wanted to watch while we ate, and the only suggestion I could offer was “Huan Zhu Ge Ge,” an old drama I loved as a kid, chief among the few shows I remembered at all. She was deeply amused. For her, this show was ancient history, which it actually was, being set in an old dynasty. It was like her suggesting we watch the Titanic or The Wizard of Oz.

But it wasn’t just television that I could finally discuss with someone outside my family, layer by layer the experiences that I had shoved far into the back of my mind began to solidify as real chapters in my mental album of life. Growing up in China was no longer just a prequel but hours and days that I had spent in the waking world. It was the first time I seriously thought about what growing up in a different country might have looked like for me and also the first time that I didn’t think of it as some unimaginable alternative that I can consider myself lucky to dodge.

In America, we are often taught to understand other people’s cultures as one drop in the great bucket of “diversity” — the colorful icing that tops a predominantly white cake, the extra spice that flavors an otherwise homogenous melting pot, the bare-minimum “tolerance” that was my middle school’s way of teaching us to avoid discrimination. Diversity is a concept that our post-Darwinian society has accepted as unambiguously desirable, and that makes it dangerous. The pros make sense: The more DNA combinations we have, the greater our chances of eluding Mother Nature’s attempts to kill us off. The more perspectives we have, the better to catch mistakes before we follow each other off the same cliff.

But other people’s cultures are not here to add an exotic dish to our potluck or a dreamy destination to our travel plans — they are thousands of years’ worth of their own wars, innovations and revolutions. They aren’t here to add more noise to the dialogue, they deserve to exercise a respected and heard voice. A word like “diversity” that everyone can use and no one is allowed to criticize inevitably loses its meaning. It’s like saying “good” or “happy” — it describes something that we want without actually telling us what it is, and to analyze real-world oppression with the fluff of a fifth grader’s last-minute history project is condescending.

So let’s stop using soft words to shy away from mistakes, because “diversity” is not a thing. The world is naturally filled with an infinite spectrum of life, colors and ideas, and that doesn’t need a name — not unless we have something different in mind. Humans created the concept of diversity by destroying it, sustaining artificial environments where only one class, one gender, one ethnicity and one sexual orientation was allowed to succeed. Improving our institutions today is not a favor, it is one step in a long marathon toward setting the record straight, and it is owed to billions of people who have been systematically stripped of a fundamental opportunity in life: a fair fight.

I’m not saying that we should prefer Hunger Games-style survival. In fact, cooperating as human beings allows us to pursue greater goals that we never could even have conceived of without our social institutions. But the political language is unclear. “Diversity” describes some natural, laissez-faire process of letting the best fight it out, when in reality, we’ve been doing the opposite.

Ideally, we do want to control the variables, to fill in the opportunities that have been denied to people either by luck or by human error. We want a world that any of us would feel comfortable being born into, even before we know which race, gender or socioeconomic status we would end up with.

And that’s not diversity. It’s justice. 

Lin Lan is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Economics. Her column “Laissez Fair: The Invisible Backhand,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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