Generation Golden Rule: Can Taking into Account Someone’s Race Be Justified?

-Guest Chat-

Jenn Giffels ’14

I was raised in the Age of the Golden Rule. I think some people also refer to us as Generation Y, but I feel confident characterizing my upbringing by this one looming decree, this incessant reminder: Treat others the way you want to be treated. This mantra was hung in my classrooms, repeated at the dinner table, and reinforced in literature all throughout my childhood.

My parents never told me before I went off to school, “Jennifer, some kids in your class are going to be different. They’re not going to be white, Catholic, economically stable, and of Irish descent. You still have to be nice to them, though.” My teachers did not warn us, “Now, class, here in a New England suburb we are lucky to have such great schools. Be sympathetic of those you’ll meet who didn’t have this privilege.” Pointing out differences first, then telling us to be nice due to these differences results in a condescending, pitying attitude. I was not taught that I should be nice to others because they are different; I was taught that I should be nice to others because they are the same as me: we are all human. If I did happen to notice something “different” about someone, I was to be nice to him in spite of that difference. After all, I would not want someone to be cruel to me because of my hair color or the way I talk. Thus, the Golden Rule: simply being respectful because you would want to be treated the same way if you were in that person’s shoes.

I was taught that I shouldn’t make judgments about people when I first meet them, and I was never instructed to group people by race, ethnicity, or any other feature evident upon introduction. I learned that discrimination means acting differently towards someone because of a certain characteristic he has or a certain trait he embodies. To this day I maintain the belief that I will not act differently towards anyone because of a superficial quality, but this belief has not gone unchallenged.

Spare me a minute to explain one of these examples. I work as a hostess in a restaurant. On weekends, holidays, and other busy days we open up our private function rooms to use for general seating to allow more room for guests. Some guests love being seated in these rooms and enjoy the quiet atmosphere, while others feel like they are being shunned from the livelier, more chaotic main dining room. As hostesses, our only concern with seating people is making sure we evenly distribute them among the servers. A few Fridays ago, I brought a couple to a table in one of these back rooms; since it was early in the night they were the first guests to sit back here. As do many curious guests, they wondered why they were being sat in the back room, and then asked to be moved. I brought them to another table without an issue and thought nothing of it, until my manager came up to me. “You have to be careful with seating African-Americans in the back rooms, especially when they’re the first guests in there. I know you meant nothing by it, but sometimes they think it’s because we are trying to hide them.”

After I realized my manager was indeed serious, I couldn’t stop thinking about this for the rest of the night. Did these people really think I was being racist? I mean, it’s the twenty-first century! I’m a Global Studies major, I pretend to be fluent in Spanish, and I have plenty of non-Caucasian friends and colleagues. Alas, I was witnessing first-hand the effects of the disgusting discrimination suffered to this day by people in our society. These guests assumed I was being racist because I am a white female working in a fine-dining establishment located in a majority-white suburb, seating them in the back room.

Think about this scenario, and tell me if you don’t find it troubling. By not being discriminatory, racist, or judgmental in any fashion, by not even registering these people’s skin color, I offended them. My manager then asked me to pay attention to race next time and make a decision based on their race. While my actions with these guests were a result of not taking race into consideration, I am being told I should actually factor it in next time. This did not and does not settle well with me.

This is why I at first had my qualms with a diversity policy, with a plan to deliberately target people because of certain characteristics and encourage them to come to PC. I, like many other people in this debate, certainly do not think someone should be accepted, elected, preferred, or prioritized due to race, ethnicity, sexual preference, political belief, religious views, and the list goes on. But by the same token, no one should be denied because of these, or further suffocated by our society because, for example, his race has been historically discriminated against in the workforce and now his parents do not earn sufficient income to afford a school like PC. Before you jump to blaming the diversity initiative for “taking your spot,” though, take a minute to think that your spot just as easily could have been “taken” by someone from a wealthy family, whose parents can afford to pay full tuition for four years. You also probably had a higher high school GPA and better free throw percentage than this well-off individual can claim.

So with the intention of not discriminating at all, PC should not assume characteristics of its student body because this de facto creates an in-group. And because this in-group mentality tempts students and faculty to shelter themselves within a small, “privileged” PC community, I think diversity measures are in order. They are in order so that everyone feels welcome at our school, so that there is no such thing as being “different” or an “outsider,” so there will be a rich, inclusive culture.

Allow me to provide another brief example. A friend of mine was sitting in Civ the other day listening to her professor introduce the book they were about to start reading. Paraphrased, his statement went something like this, “The text we’re about to read will seem foreign to you at first, kind of like reading a Buddhist text about the right path to Nirvana.” The professor made an unfair judgment about everyone sitting in that class, and however harmless or funny he meant his statement to be, the fact of the matter is that there was at least one Buddhist sitting in that room, my friend, for whom Buddhist texts are not foreign but actually very close to home. Furthermore, anyone who has taken our school’s World Religions course would also have been familiar with the beliefs of Buddhism. A simple and seemingly innocent situation, yet with far-reaching implications.

I am a believer in diversity, but not at the expense of pointing fingers at the “diverse” and labeling them as people who would “contribute to diversity.” What does that even mean? They are still being categorized and used for a certain purpose. I would like to see our school become more diverse so that everyone feels welcome here and so that we can all become more knowledgeable and aware of the many different traditions, customs, and lifestyles that make up our society.

Diversity extends beyond campus gates as well, and our responsibility continues into the community in which we reside and upon which we have an impact. We cannot truly brag about our “commitment to community service” until we make many more true and meaningful connections with the city of Providence and its neighborhoods. I certainly am not proud when I talk with kids from local Providence high schools who think they have no chance of being accepted to PC. When I bring them to tour campus, I struggle as I watch them wondering whether they would “fit in” with the hoards of white, wealthy students they see in every corner.

Finally, I would like to address the common rebuttal, “Well I happen to be white, but I worked for every single good grade I received and therefore I deserve the spot at this school regardless of my race.” I admittedly was quick to defend this logic for the longest time, until a few select experiences in college showed me a stark reality. Yes, I undeniably put a lot of effort into my work through high school and continuing now in college; I sacrifice sleep on the majority of nights and squander money on cups of coffee… and darn it, I deserve this, right? Well, sure, but it’s not a stand-alone argument. I have to acknowledge and factor in the support, guidance, and tutelage of my teachers and parents, for without a loving family, nutritious dinners, and a warm bed to go home to every night, I would not be in the same position. Without access to newspapers and television at home, textbooks and qualified teachers in the classrooms, the safety of the school playground, and many other fortunate circumstances, there is absolutely no denying I would not have had the same opportunities when it came to choosing a college. The playing field is not level, my friends, and even if someone with a lower GPA “got my spot” at some other school, he very well may have earned better grades than I given the same circumstances.

Diversity, in my eyes, is actually more in line with the core beliefs of Providence College as a Catholic institution than the rather homogenous community that has developed since its founding. One of the most fundamental and humble instructions from the Church is found in the Gospels, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (from both Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31; the exact translation varies depending on which version you reference). I think we may have just found scriptural proof for working to end the secluded, exclusive reputation of Providence College and for encouraging diversity in order to make everyone feel welcome. I just hope that in working to do so we do not inadvertently make our differences more pronounced.

Jenn Giffels is a Junior Global Studies and Spanish double major, and is spending the spring semester abroad in Argentina.

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