Let’s stop allowing niceties to prevent meaningful discussions about diversity
To what end are we filling out the Campus Climate Survey? The stunningly non-communicative email accompanying the survey link gave no hints as to what the Mosaic Project’s Assessment and Benchmarking Group hopes to learn from the data collected, or how said data will be applied. I’m not a member of that working group so I can’t say this with certainty, but if they intended to capture the experiences of historically marginalized students on campus, I can identify at least one major problem with the language and construction of the survey: it was too nice.
After a few general demographic questions, the survey asks how “satisfied” the respondent is with the “sense of community” on campus. The question supposes Wash. U. has a cohesive community to begin with, thereby failing to address the nuanced possibility of feeling “satisfied” with a certain subset of peers and “dissatisfied” with Wash. U. generally. Although space is provided to expand on most answers, the survey often misses the point altogether by asking questions about the frequency of distinct, identifiable events rather than impressions, perceptions or otherwise less tangible factors in a student’s experience. For example, at one point the survey asks how “fairly” the respondent has been treated. Which is fine. We want to know when something is overtly unfair or unjust, but asking if I’ve been treated fairly by other students doesn’t address whether or not I’ve been treated equally. My predominantly white freshman floormates weren’t “unfair” to me; they just never asked if I wanted to hang out in the common room or addressed me in public. Similarly, the survey asks whether or not the respondent ever considered leaving Wash. U. as a result of bias or discrimination. When I wanted to drop out, it wasn’t because someone called me a racial slur. It was because when my grades and mental health started to suffer, it served as reminder of my unfitness for a university that caters to upper-class white students. Wash. U.’s culture excludes implicitly and insidiously by relying on the invisibility of students with subordinate identities until it’s time to highlight diversity on campus and our presence suddenly becomes convenient.
But no one wants to hear that. As a campus, we are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, hurting someone’s feelings or becoming implicated that we take every opportunity to distance ourselves by disengaging in conversations that get at the heart of diversity issues. I’m guilty of this too and even hesitated to write this because I didn’t want to upset people whom I like and respect that work really hard on diversity-geared campus initiatives. But the Mosaic Project, especially when it engages the student body, needs to be as direct as possible.
The peculiarity of niceness on campus has been painfully obvious at various times in the last few months (take for example the habit of referring to instances of racism, sexism, etc. as “incidents”), but never more dangerously than with this survey. The survey is supposed to be the opportunity for students to articulate their experiences so that the problems can be corrected but asks questions so vaguely that we can’t possibly target what makes Wash. U. such an uncomfortable place sometimes. With precious few forums to talk about our experiences, it’s disappointing when the Mosaic Project unveils initiatives that only serve to make the dominant group feel better about the subtle patronization of their non-attention. So, I ask again: to what end are we filling out the Campus Climate Survey?
If it’s to make Wash. U. better, then actually do that. Let’s make Wash. U. a model for diversity and inclusion by getting serious about asking tough questions and welcoming answers we probably don’t want to hear. Let’s lean into the discomfort and stop congratulating ourselves for doing the bare minimum. But most importantly, let’s remain critical of our efforts because thus far we’ve allowed ourselves to confuse posturing and pandering for meaningful, productive conversation. And let’s stop allowing niceness stand in the way of that.