Last March flyers preaching white supremacy, complete with swastikas, appeared on bulletin boards on the campus of North Dakota State University. About the same time, a minority student at NDSU received a harassing telephone call that began with an expletive. Earlier, messages from the Ten Percent Society promoting awareness of Coming Out Week were defaced, one changed from "Out and proud at NDSU" to "Out and dead at NDSU." Concerns now are expressed that the events of Sept. 11 might create a backlash against Arab and Muslim members of the community.
In response, NDSU President Joseph A. Chapman and others condemn the anonymous flyers of hatred. An NDSU Diversity Council, charged with finding ways to increase diversity, has begun work. Campus groups continue to organize forums following Sept. 11, attempting to make sense of the senseless.
Efforts to promote diversity face challenges, not the least of which is that while some words are easy to define, others mean very different things to different people. Diversity is such a word.
-Interviews by David Wahlberg
"What we all know, if we think about it for only half a second, that we are all individuals different from each other in some ways. Whether that's the color of our eyes or how tall we are, what we like to eat or what kind of clothes we like. There's overlap among all of us humans in many of those areas, but there's also individual difference. The issue about group difference - racial groups, gender groups, groups based on one's physical or mental ability or disability - is that we've come to make assumptions about people based on their group membership.
"We don't think about white folks as a group. We think about white folks as individuals. But when we think about black folk or Hispanic folk or Native American folk, there's a huge tendency to think of an individual with all the group characteristics. And, of course, all the group characteristics aren't typical of any one individual in any one of those groups. But groups share some characteristics that tend to predominate our thinking. When we judge people based on their group membership instead of their individuality, then that's when prejudice and discrimination come into play. Particularly because most of the stereotypes about those traditionally excluded and underrepresented groups are negatives, they are not positives.
"It is not popular these days to admit that we have prejudices and biases and that we operate out of our stereotypes. We know intellectually that's not supposed to happen. It's hard to confront that it does happen because we want to be good people. People who have been excluded, for every good reason, want a change. They want justice now, not 20 years from now when we can all get it straight. There is a tension between the good hearted but still well-socialized mainstream folks and the people who know they've been mostly shut out and want to be a part of the American dream."
"Whenever we hear diversity, our mind goes to racial balance and affirmative action. That's not the only implication of diversity. Diversity means that there should be room for different subjects to be studied. There should be different teaching methods. There should be different kinds of teachers, some of them with tenured positions, recognized internationally because of their erudition in certain areas. Others might not have any degrees, but they have done something so well that they know it from practice. There should be room in universities for those kinds of people.
"Diversity should be given a very broad interpretation, and our minds should be redirected away from seeing it only as skin color. Diversity means allowing that the world is so big that its impossible for anybody to comprehend it in their immediate domain, and therefore they should be accommodating of different perspectives.
"But this realization should come to students without anybody shouting it in their ear, it should come through their realization that a university is a place which is unique from any other institution because it is growing knowledge and knowledge should be limitless. It is knowledge about Islam. It is knowledge about homosexuals. It is knowledge about cannibalism. It is knowledge about everything. This is the place where such knowledge should be propagated. Not necessarily promoted, but we should grow it."
"Most white people never think about being white. It's just the way it is. I'm not saying that's always true, but it seems to me that's how it's been. Whereas people of color are forced to think about it every day. My dad is Native American, my mom is white and so just within me there is a lot of that. Being with my dad's family and going to a Pow-Wow, people there say 'you're white' almost with hostility. And then being around people who are Caucasian or white, they're like 'ooh, you're Indian.'
"It's tough for me because I don't look Native American, really. Most people look at me and some of them like to tell their little jokes and then they find out later and then they say they're sorry.
"I feel like I belong here. It's different for me than a lot of other people that are Native American just because I don't look it. Maybe that's why I fit in. I don't know how it is to look different. Really I don't. When people find out, then they react a little bit differently. They'll tell their jokes until they find out. Or sometimes, when they know who I am, they'll ask, "what do you think about this or that?' Like I'm a spokesperson for whatever. 'What do you think about the Sioux name?' That's always kind of funny. That doesn't bother me, I just think it's kind of funny.
"Oh, you're white. What do you think of the potato famine?"
"What we say is power is really effective when it is invisible. In other words, if I really think you have a lot more power than I and it is clearly visible, than I can go and make a case for it to a court or to the powers that be. But if it is invisible, and I'm just sort of knuckling under all the time without even being conscious of it, then it's very effective.
"We say things like we live in a meritocracy where the cream flows to the top, so that we cannot question how people at the top got there because we assume it is because of their merit or their enterprise. They deserve it, that's why they're there. With that assumption, then, we have a lot of hidden power, we assume that people are in place where they should be. That also goes along with our notion of fairness. We embrace fairness in this country, at the same time we want to keep people in their place.
"People are uncomfortable in their communication about these differences. I find that very much the case with disability, for instance. If you see someone on crutches or in a wheelchair, how do you engage them and maintain a sense of equality with them? Yes, I think there's a lot of difficulty with pointing out our differences in a positive way.
"The thing that is interesting is that diversity really cuts across business and the university. It's not just universities that are looking to open up the doors, so to speak. Business, of course, wants more productivity, wants more diversity, so they can have different kinds of ideas floating around and be more productive."
"Six or seven years ago, I went to Beijing for a few weeks to give some lectures at Beijing Agricultural University.
"In a city of 15 million people, I hardly saw another Caucasian. I was clearly viewed by the native people as being very different. While I don't necessarily think it's a situation where I felt like an African-American would feel in Fargo, at least I had a sense of the differences in how I was viewed. It was a very interesting experience, and I have to say, not altogether pleasant.
"When I went to Beijing, the place was packed, obviously, with Chinese. I had no idea who I was looking for and they had never seen a picture of me. For an hour I couldn't find them. I was starting to think this is going to be really incredible. I'm going to spend two weeks in the Beijing airport, not able to speak to anybody and having no idea where I'm supposed to go. Finally I did run into them, but it was one of those things where you start thinking of every possible bad thing. I've traveled a lot and had no reason to think that, but it was a very unnerving experience."
There's this big fear of the unknown person who is going to steal away your family or take away your rights when, really, I'm the person that sits next to you in your sociology class and, shockingly enough, I have a family, too, so I'm not destroying families. And somebody has to do it. If everyone's going to stay in the closet and stay quiet, then it's never going to change.
"Last week I was walking down the street in Amsterdam trying to figure out how to use the tram system. I've been a lot of places around the world and I've always been able to figure out the metro, but for some reason that stupid tram map was absolutely eluding me. Then when I did, it suddenly hit me, 'Wow, I had to figure out a new system in Madrid and in Paris. And I had to understand how to barter in Cote d' Ivoire. I had to figure out how to use the trolley in San Francisco. This is really going to be useful someday, and not just in the realm of transportation, but to understand how all these systems work.' Even though I've been to the metro in tons of cities, it's always different. The more you experience, the more you do and the more different systems you have to figure out in your life, the more open you are to anything new that life brings you."