Ignoring the Power of Diversity is Historical Amnesia

Next Friday is #ProofPointDay, a day for celebrating first generation college students, or "FGs." In honor of #ProofPointDay, I want to share some personal reflections on the power of diversity.


“Life is plurality; death is uniformity.” –Octavio Paz


The 1880s were an era of confusing change for a United States still fragile from the aftershocks of disunion. The end of formal reconstruction left myriad unanswered questions about the future of race relations; over five million new immigrants, most of whom did not speak English, came to the country, causing tension with recently established laborers in the middle class; new technologies made rapid communication and transportation easier than ever before; and inequality surged as the country reckoned with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a wealthy elite. At a particularly tense moment in his home state of New York, future president Theodore Roosevelt impressed upon this newly plural American society to find strength in what might otherwise be construed as weakness. “Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist,” Roosevelt said, in a speech about the duties of citizenship, “if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

Roosevelt's words feel as relevant now as in the late nineteenth century. There is no way to cultivate such difference of thought without embracing and fostering diversity, and this #ProofPointDay, it is important to celebrate the immense diversity of this country and remember that our differences represent assets, not liabilities. 


Unfortunately, during times of rapid change and political instability, it can seem appealing to fall back on the perceived safety of homogeneity. America in the early twenty-first century bears stunning resemblance to the country Roosevelt faced in the late nineteenth. Turbulence and uncertainty can make paeans to nativist disunity appealing, as unsubtle pleas to return to the false safety of the past ignore the fact that plurality and diversity are the greatest gifts this country has ever offered the world. As bell hooks said in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, our culture “has tried to … make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”

Without diversity our ideas are stagnant, our growth is stunted, our feet are leaden, and our food lacks flavor. Lest we think that diversity is a “nice to have” sort of thing that must wait in line behind other priorities, research from McKinsey & Company demonstrates that diverse organizations perform at higher levels than mono-cultural ones. Indeed, “In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.”

#ProofPointDay exists to celebrate the diversity inherent in one particular identity, that of the first generation college student - or "FG." This one identity is emblematic of our pluralism; it contains multitudes. Being a first generation college student knows no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic bounds. Being a first generation college student symbolizes the promise of achieving meaningful unity through diversity, the vehicle for which is America’s greatest force for equity and social mobility, our schools. Today’s FGs are motivators for the children of today; last generation’s FGs already are leaders of industry, social movements, and government, offering a powerful example to today’s young people, particularly when they choose to explicitly embrace their FG identity. By celebrating the diversity of our culture as a whole, and of our FGs in particular, we have a chance at transcendence. Times are trying, social change is hard, and our politics can seem hopeless, but as Ghandi once reminded us, “our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization."