Monday, December 15, 2008

Diversité in the Université

Mt. Ararat, Armenia

"Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that will allow the department to evaluate your contributions to the University's diversity mission..."

This is THE essay question to apply for a graduate degree at a prestigious California university. Not a degree in teaching, political science, or social work, mind you. ANY graduate degree. In other words, if you're white, middle class and grew up in a homogenous suburb, you're going to have to punt.

Oh, boo hoo, get over it, you bourgeois Caucasian troll. Yes, I know, except for the fact that the applicant in question is my daughter. As I write this, she is in serious brain-racking mode, trying to put some kind of ethnically compelling spin on her lily-whiteness. Having a Jewish grandfather is pretty mainstream nowadays. Nor can she expect any props for her French grandmother: There's gotta be at least one francophobe on the admissions committee. The Mormon grandma? Better keep that quiet in the wake of prop 8's passing. Besides, my mother-in-law converted to Catholicism at a very young age.

A few days ago, my daughter thought she'd found an angle - along with a potential scholarship for young women of Armenian descent. I had to point out that having two great-great-grandfathers from Armenia is not a great-great qualification. I'd hate to see her rob some deserving, doe-eyed young woman named Siranouche Katchaturian of a chance to be honored for her roots and her hard work. And while I've always suspected there was a genetic component to my disproportionate fondness for eggplant, I honestly can't remember anyone in my mother's family pining for the slopes of Mt. Ararat.

Diversity is a beautiful thing. It's what I love about America. Certainly more than the Flag, or the National Anthem, or even apple pie and ice cream. I wept at Obama's acceptance speech. I can't imagine San Francisco without gays and lesbians, or Asians, or people of color. Bo-ring. And for sure, we all have a moral obligation to practice diversity in our lives. To speak out against injustice. To be openminded and colorblind and intellectually curious when it comes to our travels, our cultural experiences, our choice of friends, who we hire, or how we raise our children. But I have to draw the line at diversity as some sort of litmus test in the admissions process at a major university. My daughter wants to make art - serious, thoughtful art with a message. Right now, her paintings are about modern man's alienation from the disappearing natural world - I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it. It's a message that paints all humans as passengers on the same sinking ship. It's us vs. the planet, which, unless you want to get on your high horse about the evils of Western civilization and blame the Europeans for the Industrial Revolution, is about unity, not diversity.

In 1996, California passed proposition 209, which states: SEC. 31. (a) The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. You can argue 209's fairness 'til the cows get PHDs. No doubt affirmative action has been a fine thing for many deserving students and workers, and for society as a whole. And from an historical perspective, affirmative action was probably more necessary in 1996 than it is in late 2008, as our nation's first black president is busy putting together a cabinet that is clearly ethnically diverse (if politically pretty darn homogenous). But the fact remains, 209 is the law, and the diversity essay question on my daughter's grad school application is a blatant workaround.

They want diversity? They should weigh her art work against what their current students are doing. Is anybody else working in heavy impasto? Do the performance or installation types outnumber the traditional painters? Do they have a glut of lesbian feminist neo-realists? Frieda Kahlo's work is inseparable from her Mexican ethnicity, but Rothko's is about paint and it doesn't make him a lesser artist. By demanding that a prospective student display his or her diversity credentials, the University appears to be requiring an artistic emphasis on this issue, a history of diversity-related activism, or both. In short, they are acting like the thought police. If you think I'm full of malarkey, look at the question again:

"Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that will allow the department to evaluate your contributions to the University's diversity mission..."

Now, substitute "American values" for "diversity mission." And let me know when your skin starts to crawl.

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