Our society has come a long way when it comes to acknowledging and celebrating diversity in its many forms. At least we like to think we have.
The problem is that sometimes, instead of elevating historically marginalized people, leveling the playing field, or genuinely seeking different perspectives, "diversity" becomes a paper goal and yet another way to pay lip service to progress while actually inflicting harm.
Case in point: This tweet by the University of Missouri Athletics Department.
As explained by The Riverfront Times:
"There seems to be a clear difference in the messages displayed between white and black student athletes. There was gymnast Chelsey Christensen — 'I am a future doctor"'— and swimmer/diver CJ Kovac — "'I am a future corporate financer.' Opposite them were two black student athletes, whose texts did not include the word 'future' or even mention their areas of study. Instead, runner Arielle Mack is shown stating only, 'I am an African American woman.'
Similarly, Chad Jones-Hicks — who appears to not be a student athlete, but rather a 'Ticket Office Assistant' according to Mizzou's website — is shown stating only, 'I value equality.'
I'm sorry, what?
The tweet was quickly called out for its…what do you even call this? Absurdity? Offensiveness? Bizarre lack of awareness of how racist and wrong putting those images and words together was?
Identifying the two white athletes by their future careers, but not the two black athletes, is a choice that can only be steeped in conscious or unconscious perceptions of race. I can't see any other explanation. What's baffling is how no one involved in the making or sharing of the images seemed to notice the problem.
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The school tried to apologize for their "mistake" and smooth things over by sharing a video of the athletes describing themselves. In the video, the words shared with their images are shown to be their own quotes—"I am an African American woman," for example—but those same athletes also shared their future career goals as well.
Why on earth would you pick these quotes to accompany the photos and not the same career-oriented ones shared with the white athletes? Why would you not put "I am a future physical therapist" instead of "I am an African American woman," when we can see her race quite clearly from the photo? Why would "I value equality" be at all a compelling identifier? Isn't that just a given?
Another image shared by Mizzou showed black athlete Caulin Graves with a banner said that, "I am a brother." Really? The vast majority of males on the planet are brothers, not to mention the allusion to the colloquial use of 'brother' in the black community. Graves' full quote in the video was "I am a brother, uncle, and best of all, I am a leader." Why on God's green earth would you choose "I am a brother" over "I am a leader"?
Writer and speaker Ally Henny, who frequently addresses issues of race in society, explained why the images drew immediate ire on her Facebook page.
"This story is what you get when you view black, brown, and indigenous bodies as a deviation from the norm and inherently political. This 'attempt' at equity and inclusion demonstrates how people at this institution in particular and white people in general have a lack of imagination when it comes to black athletes.
Black athletes are seen as people who bring their beloved institutions and teams money, but they have no real value beyond the physical labor they produce that brings their institution prestige.White athletes, in contrast, are perceived to have a future beyond college sports. They are 'future [fill in the blanks].'
Black athletes are there so people will think that their racist school in their racist little town isn't actually racist. Their majors don't matter. Their aspirations don't matter. Their futures don't matter. The only thing that matters is that NCAA money."
We clearly still have a ways to go on the racism front, folks.
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If you're looking for an example of how not to do a diversity announcement, this is it. It's also worth pointing out that diversity and inclusion shouldn't need a self-shout-out on Twitter anyway. An institution that manages to create an environment that truly enables and embraces diversity, and does so in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to those it seeks to include, will speak for itself. No slogans or hashtags needed.
And until such environments becomes the norm, campaigns such as this will keep missing the mark.