Thinking about “Diversity”

diversityAt the Edcamp Summit mentioned in my last post, I participated in a lot of conversations about equity and diversity, some formal, some informal.  These conversations challenge me on a number of levels.  I can always tell when something is bugging me because my head feels like it’s on fire, not in an angry way, but in the way of gears turning a little too quickly. My brain is trying process too much information or is participating in cognitive dissonance and I’m consciously trying to avoid that and so my brain is working overtime to keep those disparate thoughts held together somehow.  Talking about diversity does this to me every time.

Here’s the thing.  I recognize that I spend a lot of time with people who look like me and who share a lot of other characteristics similar to my own: education, income, etc.  It’s not intentional.  And, in fact, in order for me not to spend time with people just like me, I have to be very intentional, which takes time and sometimes involves taking a risk.  I have vowed to myself to take the time and take the risk even though I don’t yet know how I’m going to make this happen.  But I’m going to work on it.

I have one advantage that helps me at least think a little more intelligently about this issue.  I’m a woman in Computer Science.  I could have said I’m a woman, period, but all my other characteristics erase much of my gender disparity.  Being a woman in a male-dominated field, though, at least gives me some sense of the feelings other non-dominant groups (whether it’s race, class, sexual orientation, or gender identity) have in spaces occupied by the dominant group (meaning whatever group has power in that context, usually white, usually male, usually heterosexual, etc.).  I have written about the women in CS issue a number of times.  Here are a few posts from a while back that cover most of the main points:

Yep, that first post is from 2005, over 10 years ago.  I dared to point out that the presenters at a conference were all guys.  A person of color might have emphasized the race.  A trans or lgbt person might have looked for signs that they’d be welcomed or even safe. A person of more limited income might consider registration costs, hotel and travel expenses and know that not only can they not attend, but others like them will likely not be there much less presenting.  The conversations and questions from those posts are still happening.  In ten years, I think we’re having a better conversation, but not a lot has changed.

That feeling I have in those moments is anger and a little fear and a lot of fatigue because dang, man, I’ve been at this for a long time–more than 10 years I can tell you.  And I’m guessing that those feelings are similar to others who walk into a situation where they are clearly not in the majority.  So it helps me get, for example, why a person of color might not call out the racially insensitive remark and only talk about it later with their friends (or blog about it. 🙂 ).  But it doesn’t help me necessarily not be the person who makes the remark in the first place.  It should help me be the person to call out something problematic in a conversation, but not necessarily.  Because sometimes the fear kicks in or the questioning.  Is it my place to say something? What if it’s the wrong thing?

And all that is just on the personal level, which I do think is a good place to start, but I start to feel overwhelmed sometimes when I think about the system, the system that creates these inequalities in the first place.  To quote one of those posts from above:

Changing the system requires changing the rules. But there’s a tendency toward staying the same. . . . We have to try to go against those tendencies. And that’s going to take some serious effort.

I can do what I can do to educate my students in a way that reveals the system and moves them toward changing those rules.  I can do what I can myself to change the rules.  My own discomfort often comes from a feeling of not doing enough, of playing it safe, of staying too comfortable.  What if I took more of risk and did more? What would that look like? And what would the consequences be? Those questions are questions I think a lot of people ask.  Just asking them reveals my privileged position.  I can choose to feel comfortable or not, risk or not.  No easy answers here, but I am trying to ask the right questions at least.