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Notre Dame – anything but diverse

Guest Column | Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recently, “The Daily Show” news anchor Larry Wilmore, the show’s only African-American correspondent, commented on an announcement by Disney that it will soon be presenting its first black princess character. Wilmore stated, dryly: “We have overcome.”

Some, it seems, would like to make similar, though less ironic, assessments of Notre Dame and its continuing efforts to “diversify.” After all, it is projected that some 25 percent of the class of 2011 will be ethnic minorities, making it the most ethnically diverse class in the University’s history. This must be progress.

However, the very real fact remains – denied by many here, but felt intimately by others – that Notre Dame is anything but diverse. Diverse in the most fundamental sense of the word: as in, a place where difference, pure and unconditional, is honored, embraced and even fostered. Such a place Notre Dame is not.

As the number of racial and ethnic minorities (slowly) increases on campus, there does not seem to be a corresponding increase in racial integration and interaction. Putting people of different colors and ethnic backgrounds in the same space, it turns out, does not amount, in itself, to establishing a truly multicultural community. As a moderator for three years now of the two-day “Diversity” requirement for freshman in Contemporary Topics, I can attest to the pervasiveness of the sentiment among white students that: “Racism just really isn’t an issue anymore.” What’s worse, in my mind, is that this attitude is so hegemonic at Notre Dame that many students of color, who know otherwise, feel compelled to keep quiet about the racist comments and behaviors with which they’re confronted regularly at this school, lest they be labeled as “bitter” or “exaggerators.”

As a person who is queer (in more polite terms, “gay”), I can say that the situation at Notre Dame is similar for us. Similar, but not the same. Because, while it is usually apparent when a person is of a non-normative (i.e., non-European) ethnicity, (some) people with non-normative sexual desires or behaviors, or ways of doing gender, are able to conceal these characteristics, thereby passing as “normal.” Of course, this choice to conceal only makes sense in an environment where only one type of sexuality (heterosexual) and one type of gender expression (masculine for “men,” feminine for “women”) are understood – and sanctioned – as normal, natural and acceptable. In such an environment, it is understandable not only that a majority of non-heterosexual students and professors choose to hide or at least downplay their sexual preferences, but also that attempts to assert the dignity, rights and even the existence of such persons are suppressed. In this sense, it is no mere coincidence that this semester the former-Queer, former-Gay and Lesbian “film event” did not feature any of those words in its title, or that six members of the Equality Ride, a large group of students who are touring the country in support of LGBT students at Christian universities, were arrested when they came to this campus to raise awareness. In effect, what the University has said – a sentiment with which many students here would agree – is that homophobia, like racism, sexism, ablism, classism, etc., just isn’t a problem here. A few lesbian or gay students go here and, like everyone else, they’re “part of the Notre Dame family.”

And that, finally, is the point. In a world where, many feel, “community” is the stuff of folklore and “morals” exist solely as the butts of jokes, Notre Dame seems to offer what few institutions can – a place where like-minded people can come and revel in their shared convictions and group traditions. It is a place, we’re told, where “family” still means something. Which may, of course, be true. However, the crucial question is – What price do we pay for this homemade “community”?

The answer, for many of us, is quite simple – difference. Despite (mostly) politically correct and polite efforts here to “accept,” or at least “tolerate,” people whose backgrounds, “orientations” or attitudes differ from the majority’s, there is no honest effort to take on those differences, to acknowledge the profound challenges they pose to traditional ways of living and thinking, to admit and address the ways such differences, at this school and in this country, are constantly stereotyped, stigmatized and punished. Any real recognition of such serious differences here takes the form of irrational reactions (slurs, censorship, arrests, etc.), panicked responses filled with fear, threat and contempt.

None of this will change “naturally.” Nor can it be resolved rhetorically, through talk of “increased numbers” and “multicultural programming.” This is a fundamental problem that reaches to the very core of this place. Some of you are privileged enough to ignore these issues. Others of us are not. My hope is that we’ll all begin to take this matter of difference seriously, so that one day, maybe, we might be able to remove the quotes surrounding “community” here.

Patrick Wall is a senior FTT major. He can be reached at pwall1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.