On campus: Is there as much diversity as we think?

Safiya Merchant
April 24, 2011 •

After getting accepted by Northwestern last year, I contemplated how a potential lack of diversity on campus would affect the educational experience for me, an aspiring journalist and social justice advocate. Since Northwestern is one of the country's elite institutions, I assumed the school's admissions-guarded by a fortress of economic privilege-would be largely monochromatic.

Unfortunately for all of us, I was right.

According to the homepage of Northwestern University's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the racial demographics of the freshman class are as follows:

  • White: 55%
  • Asian: 19%
  • Hispanic: 8%
  • African American: 7%
  • International Students: 7%
  • Multiracial: 2%
  • Unknown: 2%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 1%

Currently, these demographics are featured on the site's banner next to a so-called "diverse" group of students, all smiling and unaware of their mostly White-looking counterparts. So here I am, sitting in classrooms with a lack of colors, backgrounds and origins while remembering my Chicago upbringing - a combination of my father's Indian culture and my mother's German and Finnish heritage.

And it's not much better elsewhere. After looking into Cornell University's demographics, I learned that almost 46 percent of its freshman class is white. For Duke University: 51 percent. The University of Michigan: around 65 percent. Does anyone else but me see a dangerous trend here? If universities that contain the best resources for careers and education do not have large minority enrollment rates, minority groups are systematically disadvantaged by the only system that can give them the tools with which to succeed.

Besides providing equality of opportunity, the inclusion of minorities into university environments helps enrich the educational institution and the learning process for students. It allows us to understand that differences do exist in culture, ideology, and religious belief. These difference must be embraced, not categorized, devalued or used as the fodder for ignorant jokes.

I don't know how many times I've heard racist jokes concerning the habits of minorities. These jokes are not harmless ingredients for small-talk; they are the seeds for fostering a culture of intolerance, fear and misunderstanding. Such remarks only prove that the absence of a dialog about the tangible presence of differences can lead to hateful ideologies in students.

What I've noticed through my upbringing in Chicago is that I've learned the most through my interactions with people around me, not from static textbooks or distant professors. When we institutionally approve of separate spheres for various races, we stifle universal success and unity. Although NU has often said that it wants to improve its minority enrollment rate, the small increases of less than 3 percent per year will not make any campus-wide impact. We need active minority recruitment, more public forums in which to talk about diversity and other actually effective measures to erase the racial stereotypes and ignorance that circulates on this campus.

Safiya Mercahnt is a Medill freshman and Daily staff writer. She can be reached at safiyamerchant2014@u.northwestern.edu and followed at twitter.com/safiyamerchant

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