Closing the Curtain on Diversity
Performative diversity in a school taught to critique
By Nadia Shaarawi
A recent memory: I’m in class, taking a course within the Hubbard School of Journalism (otherwise known as the “J-School”), and we’re learning about value propositioning in companies. To teach this concept, my professor showed a video on a company that she thought would best communicate this concept. The video features a white woman speaking about her career in journalism and how she wanted to do work covering issues on poverty. As the video continues, she speaks on how, in pursuing this work, she ran into a problem: she had never known someone in poverty.
So what does this savvy, “wanderlust” seeking woman do? Moves to Uganda. She starts a sandal company and sends Ugandan girls to a university with the money she makes from their sandal work (all while inspirational music plays in the background).
The video epitomized a white savior complex, portraying the trope of the classic white woman too delusional of the inequality in her own country that she honestly believes she possesses the knowledge to reduce poverty in other countries, specifically in Africa. Even more uncomfortable was the discussion afterward weakly led by my professor. I ask in class why this founder chose Uganda to base her cause of solving poverty, and my professor answers that she does not know why exactly. She asks why I posed that question in the first place, and I explain that it’s a confusing jump to go from needing to meet someone in poverty to meeting someone in Uganda. She acknowledges this.
“So that feeds into the white saviorship complex,” I mention.
“Maybe.” She said.
After becoming confusingly defensive of some of the points raised in class, she noted that she was not anticipating this type of conversation, wrapping up by saying our generation likes to be critical of the things we consume.
No, Jane.* It’s not a generational thing. You showed a video ignorant of its white savior-ship components, and when the moment came for us to have an honest discussion over it, you deflected.
This situation was predictable as the Journalism school has an almost 90% white adjunct faculty.** There are only four members of color out of 35 members of staff. The school recently added eight fellows of color to support diversity, but these fellows only come to advise courses temporarily.
And yet, the J-School claims to champion diversity. Peruse any class syllabus, and there is a section dedicated to accepting diversity that is specific to HJMC. UMN also offers countless workshops dedicated to educating staff on diversity. However, those are just short-term solutions, certificates, and stamps of approval. The issue is that they seemingly stop there—merely performing in diversity rather than participating.
Diversity is useless without inclusion, incorporated diversity begins with people of color in positions of authority. It is where you are actually able to recognize the value that comes from a minority perspective from inclusion through staffing, rather than the appearance of inclusion to the public. How can that even begin to be accomplished when our very own journalism school is taught by an overwhelmingly white staff? This performative form of addressing diversity exposes itself in the classroom—for example, when staff are incapable of handling critical conversations because they lack that perspective, which essentially alienates students of color.
And this is the ultimate consequence for the lack of minority representation in professional settings. When staff are blatantly uncomfortable with critique in classroom settings, it is usually on the student to bring to their attention in a perfectly crafted manner to avoid accusations, no matter the discomfort they may have endured experiencing the issue. Couple this with vapid messaging that the J-School prioritizes diversity, and the student is almost made to feel out of place for raising any criticisms in the first place. How disappointing it is to see this lacking in a school of journalism, of all places.
50 years ago, the African-American and African studies department was built out of protest for the lack of minority representation on campus. We should demand better. Conversations and critiques dissolve when the impression of diversity is prioritized rather than its structural incorporation.
And, any way you slice it, a near 90% white adjunct-faculty in a school that claims to champion diversity is a problem.