Working on a college campus puts one in the position of hearing lots of talk about diversity: racial diversity, national and ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity. These are among the standard referents for folk in higher education.
In a chapter on the importance of student affairs programs for developing college students’ spirituality, Jennifer Capeheart-Meninghall writes, “Programs and services that offer activities that affirm diversity (emphasis added), establish and hold students accountable for conduct, celebrate campus traditions, and join various constitutencies together will help build community,” (Spirituality in Higher Education, p. 35). For all the value and importance of her aim at building community and developing spirituality (an aim I completely support), I’m stuck on the difficult notion of affirming diversity. Who sets the criteria to determine that diversity has been affirmed?
As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think it is ultimately misdirected. I think what we should affirm is people. People are diverse. Because we are diverse racially, ethnically, socio-economically, culturally, and so on, we should affirm people as they demonstrate a wide range of characteristics and qualities. We affirm people and, in doing so, acknowledge that we’re different, diverse.
Some people might consider my point nothing more than pious cant, a clever-sounding rhetorical sleight-of-hand. (Some may find it completely obvious and not clever at all!) In the current climate, am I just one more white, male, middle-class traditional/conservative complaining about losing power? I don’t think so. I hope not.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs. Maybe “affirm” and “acknowledge” mean the same. A quick check of the dictionary suggests the contrary. To affirm something is to state it positively, to validate it or legitimate it and, furthermore, to “express dedication” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary) to whatever is being affirmed. To acknowledge is to recognize, to own up to (Ibid).
Because all people are created in God’s image, we value them. We value their characteristics, cultural and otherwise. We affirm them. We recognize that we come from a wide range of nations, backgrounds, worldviews and religious commitments. We accept our diversity, but we value people and we commit ourselves to living together in peace.
Why does my distinction matter? Well, in my little mind, it seems to be a step in the right direction of disentangling us from some of the political animosities that infect Christians. It’s too easy to come up with the grocery list of qualities that “proves” one “affirms diversity.” (By the way, how diverse is the group making that list?) Then people can make preemptive judgments: if you don’t accept the list, you don’t accept diversity and you’re disqualified from the conversation. If, on the other hand, we affirm people while acknowledging diversity, then we don’t prematurely disqualify. We listen with compassion and generosity – and take their ideas seriously.
“Diversity,” sadly, is a politically loaded term. It shouldn’t be. We are a nation of diverse peoples. That’s an uncontroversial fact. What we value is people, who always bring with them their cultural, ethnic, and other (diverse) qualities. We don’t ignore diversity. We acknowledge it; accept it. But we affirm people.