Even though UT and other universities are pushing to have strong and inclusive diversity policies, those institutional initiatives might be flawed.
So said Tim Wise, an anti-racist author and speaker, who presented the lecture "Beyond Diversity: Challenging Racism in an Age of Backlash" to a nearly packed UC Auditorium Tuesday night.
"I hope that by the end of our time together tonight, regardless of where you stand on certain issues ... " Wise said, "you will at least come away with the idea that ... to ignore issues of race and economics just is simply something that we cannot do any longer."
The Nashville native spoke at a brisk pace, with his lecture a mix of poignancy and humor. Before delving into the thesis of his presentation, Wise took time to acknowledge that many of the students in the audience were getting extra credit for attending his presentation.
"Let's hear it for extra credit," Wise said to the amused audience. "I've been around a bit. I don't really expect that when I come to any college campus that it's going to be hundreds and hundreds of people who just absolutely get up every morning, eating, breathing, sleeping issues of racial justice."
After warming the crowd, Wise got to the heart of the matter and began to critique campus diversity initiatives.
"I'm also highly critical of the traditional and dominate discussion about diversity on campus," Wise explained. "And it's not that I'm against diversity ... but the truth is most of the time when we talk about promoting diversity like on a college campus, we do it in a narrow way, a way in which most of the real issues continue to be overlooked."
Wise said that campus diversity discussions usually run into two problems. The first is that such discussions tend to focus attention on those that are different and expect the minority to change to fit the norm, rather than give any attention to changing the potentially oppressive nature of said norm.
To illustrate his first criticism on diversity, Wise pointed out how there are people who demand that immigrants learn to speak English if they are going to live in the U.S.
While Wise acknowledged that learning English would be helpful for immigrants, he said the problem occurs when none of those people ever consider learning a second language themselves, even when many other countries expect everyone to speak at least two languages growing up.
The second problem Wise identified was that conversations on diversity often focus too much on numbers and statistics rather than address the actual problem.
"I'm not saying that the numbers don't mean anything," said Wise. "That's one of the guideposts you use to see if you're actually getting anywhere. But you can't fetishize the numbers to the extent of ignoring all this other stuff."
Wise cited a number of statistics to illustrate how some numbers are praised while others get ignored. One of his prime examples was that minorities are more likely to get pulled over by police, but in the few cases that a white person is pulled over, the white individual is four times more likely to actually have drugs than any minority.
To fix those problems with diversity discussions, Wise said that those in power, i.e. white people, have to look at the whole picture and be able to adjust their own behavior.
"When your stuff is the norm, you don't have to scrutinize. ..." Wise said. "We have to understand how dangerous this obliviousness is."
A Q-and-A session took place after Wise had finished.
Derek Shipley, sophomore in finance, was one of the many students attending the lecture for extra credit. However, he still found Wise's presentation very interesting.
"It was a lot more different than I expected," Shipley said. "I thought it'd be more 'anti-white people,' but he ... talked about equality for everyone."
The event was sponsored and organized by the Progressive Student Alliance. PSA describes itself on its Facebook page as a student organization that combats social issues through "grassroots organizing efforts and popular education."
PSA obtained sponsoring for the event from a number of UT departments, including the geography, sociology, American studies, English and global studies departments, as well as the College of Social Work. The Ready for the World committee also gave PSA a $5,000 grant to help fund Wise's presentation.