Republican lawmakers signed a letter encouraging Boise State University president to nix diversity and inclusion initiatives like graduation celebrations specifically for LGBTQIA students. The letter’s author, Barbara Ehardt (Rep-Idaho Falls), argues that these types of events only serve to segregate minorities and that we should “focus on bringing students together, not keeping them apart”.
On the surface this sounds great. Inclusion means bringing people together, right? By creating these events we’re only serving to discriminate against those groups and make them feel more isolated, right? One person even told me that this was “fighting racism with racism”. This specious logic may sound warm and fuzzy. After all, she is talking about including everyone in the regular events. But what really happens when we take this route?
Academic spaces have largely been white and male until the past few decades. Even with the surge in female graduates, the “leaky pipeline” results in the professors and administrators remaining mostly white and mostly male. Non-whites have also begun to close the gap, but at a slower rate than the gender gap. Even with the changes in college demographics, the origin of most universities was for white education. So adding black, Asian, gay, female etc attendees, doesn’t automatically change the culture that created the spaces. At the end of the day, these are still cis, hetero, white, male spaces. The traditions are based on those things important to cis, hetero, white males. Anyone outside of that class is likely to feel unwelcome in these spaces, especially if they have experienced harassment or discrimination in the past due to their race, sexual orientation, gender, or any other characteristic. Their traditions are not represented or given credence and forcing them to participate in white male traditions without representing them is the opposite of inclusive.
There is plenty of literature on how this marginalization affects the mental, emotional, and even physical, well-being of minorities. People who deal with lifelong harassment and discrimination suffer from more mental illnesses as well as physical ailments. This is compounded by the fact that minorities are less likely to visit doctors for ailments due to the likelihood that they will experience additional discrimination from the very people who are supposed to help them. Many college campus mental health support staff are spread thin and unable to help in ways that are necessary. Living everyday in a space that does not feel like your own takes a measurable toll on people.
Creating events that celebrate the accomplishments of under-represented groups is necessary. Inclusion is not about including everyone in a single ceremony or event. It’s about including everyone in the community. And when white men have essentially all spaces available to them, it’s important for other groups to have those spaces as well. That is true equity. When everyone has a place to go where they don’t feel the pressure of being the outcast, only then can we start the healing process and begin to erase the barriers exist in communities.