Widgets Magazine


From diversity to justice

I was going to write this week’s column on diversity before I realized that I had unfortunately already written that piece back in January (I knew there had to be a reason why it was so easy to think of a title, for once). In that article, I talked about how the vagueness of the term “diversity,” when divorced from real, concrete efforts for change, was often a promise devoid of meaning. I talked about how uncritical understandings of diversity’s “benefits” play into centuries-old dynamics of the privileged many becoming “enriched” through the experiences, labor and knowledge held by the marginalized few, with little heed paid to the bigger picture: racial justice, queer liberation, an end to class/wealth inequity and state violence.

At the time of its writing, that column wasn’t particularly relevant to any current events on campus. Now, given the massive show of student support for the student coalition Who’s Teaching Us and the accompanying ingredients to make a campus issue a big deal (a controversial piece in the Reviewadministrative responsestudent rallies and the special sauce: media coverage), diversity is most definitely in the spotlight.

We talk often about what diversity is, and what diversity looks like. But the tough questions are elsewhere — namely, why diversity? And how can we get there?

If it were January again, I would have said that many people on campus — and perhaps in organizations and institutions across the country — would answer the first question by arguing for diversity for diversity’s sake. How many times have we heard administrators and leaders saying that they are committed to more diverse schools, more diverse teachers, more diverse everything… yet provide little to no explanations as to why? Once in awhile, scientists find some sort of “benefit” to diversity so that they can make neoliberal arguments for its value: diversity makes teams more productive, for example, lowers prejudice or even “makes us smarter,” perhaps skimming over the fact that our institutions do not naturally reflect our diverse population for historical reasons ranging from slavery to genocide to war and imperialism, and the ripple effects caused by these historical injustices.

And then President Hennessy, in a letter to the Who’s Teaching Us Coalition, pointed straight at “racial and socioeconomic justice” as reasons for diversity and I had to hold my tongue for a bit.

Of course, there is much, much more than “racial and socioeconomic justice” to fight for and I expect to be long graduated before I hear a university president say anything like “collective liberation.” Nevertheless, it is no small feat to have the “why” of diversity be something that student activists and administrators virtually agree on. The “how” of diversity, the specific tactics and strategies Stanford as an organization can use to arrive at the future we want, is thus the crux of the topic at hand.

When I think of an ideal Stanford, I think of a place where hardworking and passionate students, regardless of their backgrounds, identities or experiences can come to gain the skills and knowledge to better the world. I doubt this is a particularly contentious ideal. From it comes a relatively simplistic line of analysis that points to inadequate funding for community centers, a lack of representative faculty and other shortcomings at Stanford that suggest starting points for improvement. I doubt that this, either, is a controversial set of suggestions.

But this goal was framed wrongly from the start — it is not an ideal Stanford we want, it is — in President Hennessy’s words — racial and socioeconomic justice (and justice for all marginalized groups; thus, collective liberation). There are clear and obvious things we can do to make Stanford as an institution the best it can be for its students, and I have no doubt that the administration is already taking steps to move towards this goal. But, as I said on Transgender Day of Remembrance, and will say again,

It is not enough for Stanford to be the eye in a global storm.

It is for this reason that I support Who’s Teaching Us as a coalition and a movement — not simply because it fights for “diversity,” but because it recognizes the key necessity of looking outside the Stanford bubble, past the ivory tower, to the larger set of systems that must be fought. This is why, in the Who’s Teaching Us demands, calls for faculty diversity accompany calls for “divestment from violence against marginalized communities” — because Stanford has this key power to influence the world towards a just and equitable society, and diversity on campus is only the tip of that iceberg.

As the Stanford Review so curtly pointed out, “If WTU really cared about who was teaching us, perhaps they would show the restraint to restrict their discussion to [the issue of diversity], rather than sixteen others.” And in a sense, they have a point — because Who’s Teaching Us has long been about more than just diversity statistics and representation — it is a nuanced and critical movement seeking to link the injustices that students face on campus to larger injustices in the world. It is a movement, borne by many students and communities towards a better future, which I feel lucky to see in my time as a student.     


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!
  • Gina Kim

    pure pablum as usual from Lily Zheng…

  • Lily Zheng

    important contributions as usual from the comments section!

  • Jonas

    I agree that there are far too few minorities in faculty and leadership positions, but it seems to me that WTU is treating the symptoms rather than the cause. The primary reason that there are so few minorities in higher education, and STEM fields in particular, is implicit discouragement from society at every stage in their lives. Women are encouraged to play with dolls rather than computers, Blacks are expected to do poorly in school, etc.

    Rather than reducing hiring standards for minority candidates, I think it would be more productive and more appropriate to counter this implicit racism at the source by providing more programs to encourage minorities to pursue higher education and fields where they are underrepresented. For example, I’ve seen a few after-school programs that introduce young women to technology, and present them with female role models in the field. I also know of mentorship programs for minorities in certain fields that reduce dropout rates. From what I’ve seen, these programs are extremely effective.

    Of course, these programs take years to bear fruit. It’s not a quick fix like lowering hiring standards for certain candidates or demanding that only minorities be considered for certain positions. But it will ultimately lead to better outcomes for universities, students, and faculty.

  • Lily Zheng

    There are multilevel problems at the heart of this issue, including the ones you’ve identified (i.e. supply-side problems). I thought too that WTU was trying to just address the demand-side problems alone — racism in hiring, terrible retention rates, lacking representation, etc. when I first heard about them. But the point I make in this column is that WTU’s demands are carefully chosen to address a wider scope to this issue than just hiring and diversity in higher ed. For example, more funding to community centers gives students support on campus, and offers them more support to potentially become professors and faculty through an already-strained pipeline process. Divesting from state violence and private prisons has ripple effects that affect entire generations of marginalized communities.

    I think it’s an interesting conversation to talk about tactics and effectiveness: i.e. what are the actual effects, costs and impacts from investing resources into after-school programs, like you’ve suggested? How does that compare with other types of actions; which of those actions are feasible with the resources we have as students; are there causal mechanisms in society we want to shift, that aren’t already being addressed?