The role of Southeast Asians in improving diversity efforts (opinion)

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Undeniably, underrepresented faculty members in American higher education come from Black, Indigenous and Hispanic communities—one only has to look at the annual report from the National Center for Education Statistics for clear evidence. What does campus diversity talk entail, and how do we do diversity? And where are transnational and minority Asian populations represented in the DEI narrative of doing? It is in considering these questions that I want to include my voice.

While BIPOC faculty members are often presented as diversity quotients in collegewide meetings to show off an institution’s liberal face and commitment to diversity, their actual and meaningful inclusion is often disregarded. The work of diversity committees and offices has been amplified in recent years. Still, many of those offices largely remain performative sites sustaining deeply entrenched supremacist practices instead of interrogating them. Too often, the diversity gatekeepers within campuses repurpose the status quo of supremacist politics to include “our kind of diversity only,” continuing to provide lip service to the institution’s claim of saying and doing diversity instead of critiquing the lack thereof. Too often, institutional administrators reinvent the system and the structures that have routinely ignored the labors of Black, transnational, brown and BIPOC folx everywhere, glossing over their needs and what they’ve vocalized about their true lived experiences in academe.

As a result, those perceived to look different frequently become the face of diversity instead of those who sound and want to do differently than the institutionally fashionable approach to diversity. As Sara Ahmed notes, the comfort cushion of institutionally favorable diversity also means a system that has blunted its critique of the institution. Ahmed has famously called this the public relations of DEI. In On Being Included, she contends that diversity talk becomes ritualized and part of routine and polite speech due to its performative nature. She argues that it needs to recenter itself and create a more expansive matrix.

Institutional stakeholders witness diversity talk and often include white and woke faculty, who have sworn their allyship with underrepresented faculty members and use a formulaic, well-cushioned strategy. That strategy usually focuses on highlighting so-called diversity commitments and mission statements, using language to show the institution’s intent when it comes to diversity while ignoring the systemic inequality and prejudices persisting within its structures. Many of these gatekeeper-allies use the protection of the DEI apparatus but remain silent about the need for serious antiracism work to be aligned with diversity and inclusion. Diversity remains functional only as people remain comfortable showing off the institution’s exceptional “commitment to diversity” instead of pursuing it as a strategy that results in significant policy and cultural shifts—shifts that may create institutional discomfort yet make real change possible.

Ironically, the people who are seriously engaged in the disruption that DEI work requires are often seen as troublemakers, racialized in their identities. Here, fellow Asian and South Asian American faculty in DEI initiatives are few and far between. In our alignment with white supremacist structures and the systems that uphold them, many faculty members who identify themselves as upper-caste South Asians see DEI initiatives as part of the problem. They often tend to view those who work on such initiatives as members of a community of victimhood who did not make adequate use of the goodies that the civil rights era might have mythically handed them.

In aligning increasingly with anti-Blackness in the face of pressures to comply with whiteness (and being included as honorary whites), many South Asian Americans in positions of power, representation and privilege do not deem DEI to be work that needs to be done. After all, most of us are interested in being part of the solution. As the often-cited model minority status occupants, we are somewhat compelled to maintain the status quo instead of becoming part of the problem. So the perpetuity of the performative DEI structure gets full support from this contingency. Despite that, life in higher education remains precarious for the minority Asians who are untenured, contingent faculty and staff and have little to no protection when it comes to academic freedom.

The inconvenient truth is that, in higher education, the DEI industrial complex works when one advocates for a specific kind of diversity and inclusion. As witnessed in several instances, reports on being “too sensitive” to racial issues can end one’s career with brief notes of “rescinding offers of employment.” In the meantime, the push toward diversity and inclusion is now being connected to accreditation standards. Connecting diversity and inclusion standards to the mass exodus of students and faculty alike can imply that institutionally, without an honest and intentional focus on diversity and inclusion, colleges and universities stand to lose out on harnessing innovational and critical thinking embedded across multiple disciplines and higher education structures. Yet “institutional betrayals” regularly renew the trend toward protecting and consolidating diversity status quos, while those who speak the truth about institutional diversity and equity, or rather its lack—most recently, Moravian College professor Nicholas Creary—lose their positions.

As I ponder more ways of strategically doing and getting included effectively in the diversity machinery, I am also actively reminded of how I am often excluded from conversations of building coalitional allegiances and intersectional solidarities. As a South Asian, I’m part of a group of people whom institutional administrators can call upon to serve as token signifiers of a righteous intent to create diversity by promoting the “right” kind of it. As economic and elite migrants within transnational and minority frameworks who aren’t seen as disruptors or interrogators, and who sometimes even have leadership prominence, we risk being co-opted—shown off as exemplary models of diversity, in contrast to less privileged minority groups and networks, rather than as stakeholders advocating for policy changes.

Yet we can avoid that risk. We can become part of a cohort that resists the docile stereotype of the model minority. We can become responsive and ethically invested in becoming advocates for broader cultural changes that can accommodate intersectional and coalitional Black and brown people’s alliances.

In organizing active efforts to consolidate and form these alliances, committees, caucuses and local initiatives, members of privileged South Asian groups invested in truly doing diversity work must actively participate, form and engage in collaborative, transnationally inclusive bodies that are reasonable representations of underserved and underrepresented communities. I propose a three-tiered coalitional structure, one that will:

  • Diversify and broaden the presence of these diversity committees on campuses.
  • Establish cohorts that are both interdepartmental and interdisciplinary.
  • Build a commitment toward meaningful diversity by injecting a mechanism with a diversity rubric for annual evaluations along all academic and administrative tiers for training, hiring, tenure and promotional activities.
  • Establish and sustain local and global support structures outside of the academy—for instance, caucuses on diversity with nonprofits, civil society bodies, public libraries and social justice groups in the neighborhood that can be part of this group.

If we as privileged South Asian–identified academic, intellectual and civil society stakeholders get behind these changes, we can start to make a difference. And if we are active in organizing, participating and sustaining diversity efforts in the institution and beyond it, we can help make DEI structures truly meaningful strategic alliances.

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