Panel: Diversity is desirable, but inclusive's elusive

A year ago I picked up my wife-to-be at Billund Airport in Denmark. She had flown from Chicago with a transfer in Amsterdam to come see my family and me over Christmas. It was a very normal flight except for one small thing. On the plane going to Denmark my beautiful, dark-haired fiancée had been the only person who wasn’t blond.

I would have fit right in on that plane, and so would many of my friends and family. Denmark is, to a large extent, a blond country. To an even larger extent it is a white country.

A quick scroll through my list of Facebook friends reveals that I have one black friend (whom I haven’t seen in years) and just a handful of friends of Middle Eastern or Asian descent. In addition, I am a Christian, straight male from a middle-class background.

The point here is that I have absolutely no experience with being in a minority. I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, and I can hardly say that I know very many people who do.

Diversity is a big issue on this campus and the president’s office has devoted a lot of time and energy to address it. But just how diverse and inclusive is Notre Dame? To learn more about it, I decided last week to go to a discussion on the topic. The event, sponsored by nine different campus groups as part of the annual Stand Against Hate Week, presented a panel of four young alumni who gave their own stories of being in the minority when they were students and offered suggestions for what might be improved for current and future students.

Now, to borrow from the Zac Brown Band, I like my chicken fried, but after hearing one story of a recent instance of racial intimidation on campus, I can understand if such references give some people an upset stomach.

The panelists pointed to the fried chicken incident of 2012, when someone put pieces of fried chicken in the mailboxes of black and African student associations at LaFortune, as a low point in recent student life. The consensus is that it also drew more attention to the problem and may have kick-started the improvement of the social environment on campus.

It’s hard to understand how someone would put fried chicken in people’s mailboxes, or tell a person that she is going to end up in hell — a claim the Catholic Church has never made about anyone.

A crowded town hall meeting after that episode gave students an opportunity to share their own experiences — not only about race, but about other categories of identity and what it’s like to be part of a minority group. It was an “incredibly powerful event,” recalled panelist Katie Rose ’13.

“I see a lot of changes, of people feeling like there’s more of a voice now than when I was a freshman and sophomore. That moment allowed for — I will admit, as part of the silent majority on that — a conversation to happen in which I could hear a point of view that wasn’t coming out as publicly before,” Rose said.

These positive changes do not mean that everything is now resolved. Another panelist, Zoe Jimenez ’14, who as a student was involved with the 4 to 5 Movement and Prism ND groups advocating for LGBTQ interests, said she had experienced being told that she was “a good RA” and was “going to hell” in the same sentence.

“It takes a toll to advocate for your rights like that in an environment that is so harsh,” she said.

Panelist Leah Corachea ’14 brought that concern into the current academic year, citing Father John Jenkins’ September 25 commentary in The Wall Street Journal as her example. The University president criticized the NCAA for pulling its national championship events out of North Carolina in 2016-17 in response to a new state law governing who can use what bathrooms.

Jenkins argued that while progress in respect for rights of the LGBTQ community is good, the NCAA should not flex its economic muscle as a “moral arbiter” on legal and political issues, leaving the adoption of such positions to member institutions instead. Further, he wrote, we should be sensitive to those who “wonder about the implications of substituting gender identity for biological sex in public restrooms. While attending to the rights and sensibilities of transgender persons, it’s important to also take into account the feelings of those who might be uncomfortable undressing in front of a member of the opposite sex.”

In a letter to the editor published the following week in The Observer, a group of 47 professors and academic advisers took issue with Jenkins’ position. “Your placing of privileged people’s comfort over those of a disenfranchised group does not align with statements you made during your recent address to the Notre Dame faculty,” they wrote. “There, you spoke at length about the need for more diversity and inclusion at our university, grounding that goal in the principle that every human being is worthy of respect and dignity.”

Corachea said such statements of support from the faculty and staff have a positive effect on minority students.

Yet professors, too, have room for improvement, Rose added, pointing to the way they talk about relevant issues in their classrooms. One small example, “but I notice it every time,” she said, is when a professor bucks custom and uses “she” instead of “he” in describing a hypothetical situation.

“That small triggering of when you’re visualizing a hypothetical, thinking of a woman instead of a man — it creates a possibility,” she said. “These are some of the smartest professors in the world and I think they should be bringing that into the classroom.”

The discussion last week was an important if not always comfortable one. I was surprised to hear some of the things these young alumni experienced as students. It’s hard to understand how someone would put fried chicken in people’s mailboxes, or tell a person that she is going to end up in hell — a claim the Catholic Church has never made about anyone.

The panel raised legitimate questions about the rights of all persons at a Catholic university that the administration, for all of its work to date, has yet to answer. Perhaps now is the time to keep in mind at least one of the lessons we have learned from the Year of Mercy, which officially closes on November 21; namely, that everyone, no matter their race, religion, sexuality or gender identity, is worthy of love and respect.

Rasmus Schmidt Jorgensen is a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism and an intern at this magazine.

Originally published by Rasmus Jorgensen at on November 15, 2016.