Should freshmen be told that they are racist as soon as they arrive on campus? This may seem like a ridiculous question, but one that must be asked after the University of Delaware announced last Friday that it would suspend its diversity training program for first-year students. Since its inception in August, the program has drawn heat at the university and nationally because of its controversial content.
Many first-year students at Delaware expressed intense discomfort with the program on account of its divisive mechanisms. Students were forced to publicly state stereotypes they held and their views on divisive issues like race and gay marriage, making students uncomfortable just as they were settling into their new homes.
Not only did the program make many students feel pressured to express university-approved ideology, but it also constructed issues of diversity in terms of “white” and “non-white.” In some of the training materials, for example, students were given definitions of pertinent vocabulary. The term “racist” was defined as “one who is privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people.” Conversely, students were told that a “non-racist” is “a non term…created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism.”
This is not the stuff of cultural cohesion. Rather, the program at the University of Delaware represents the worst mechanisms for building diversity on a college campus: Its methods were to victimize and criminalize, and its effects were to polarize.
In our ethnically and racially diverse colleges, diversity and awareness of cross-cultural issues is of paramount importance. However, the goal of awareness is to further understanding—not further barriers. Diversity programs ought to aim to bring students together rather than to serve as stages for airing past societal grievances. That is not the way to move forward in a multicultural society.
Instead, a college should be a nexus where bright minds of all backgrounds and experiences come to exchange ideas, learn from one another, and, in the process, challenge assumptions. The role of administrators should be to facilitate this by bringing together a group of intelligent students who, through their interactions, will disprove stereotypes and reveal the most positive aspects of different races, ethnicities, and cultures. Force-feeding students a distorted view of diversity—or, for that matter, any view—is dangerous.
We are relieved that the University of Delaware program has been halted. Other institutions must heed Delaware’s lesson and not fall prey to these sorts of unworthy polemics.