Legislators Seeking to Defund UT Diversity Efforts Don’t Know What They’re Talking About

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

It must feel great to live in a world where everybody is just like you—straight, Christian, and white; or if they do happen to be different they have the decency not to get all in your face about it. A fantasy world, no doubt, but recent reactions from several national and state legislators about UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion leave me wondering what sort of world they think they live in. State Rep. Martin Daniel, for instance, has been quoted as saying, “We support diversity programs at any institution of higher learning, but it has gotten out of hand. It has taken on a whole life of its own, spilling over into other areas like transgender rights and gay and lesbian issues.”

Where then, exactly, does one draw the line between who deserves to be tolerated and who does not? Who is in, who is out, whose “issues” are worth consideration, whose humanity deserves to be taken seriously?

It can’t be a coincidence that Daniel, along with legislators who have filed bills to defund the office and U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan (who appears to think the survival of Christmas depends on office holiday parties), are white, Christian, and presumably straight, and so they don’t know what if feels like to be marginalized. They have never been cast as less American, less worthy, less human because of skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Call it a lack of imagination, call it a lack of empathy, call it an effort to force the world they believe in onto the world that is, but they don’t know what they are talking about.

Several years ago a woman asked me why nonbelievers appear to think Christians are stupid, and I remember being stunned. In the woman’s voice I heard the genuine pain of someone who feels victimized, so there was no denying her sincerity even while I was thinking: Are you kidding? How could any Christian in this country feel like a victim, particularly in this South, where preachers are allowed into school cafeterias, prayers start meetings and ball games, references to God fill the daily newspaper, and strangers talk about faith as regularly as the weather. Christianity is in the DNA of the predominant culture, and people whose views do not agree keep their mouths shut because, why upset people? But the consideration extends only one way. And this woman claimed she was the victim?  

Like the elephant complaining about the fly, she had no idea how preposterous she sounded—and yet I did, actually, know what she was talking about. Believing in God feels like knowing something is true in the same way as knowing a table is hard or the sun is hot. You can’t un-know what you know. What you know is part of who you are. Having who you are and what you know dismissed as being akin to magical thinking hurts.

It’s possible that legislators screeching about overreach at UT might know what it feels like to be called stupid for what they believe. Could it be possible for them to remember that the next time they whine about accommodating all these other people in the world?

Perhaps Rep. Daniel has no idea what it would be like growing up in a boy’s body while feeling like a girl in every speck of your being, wincing each time someone refers to you as “he.” Is it so horrible to be kind enough to refer to her with whatever pronoun validates her humanity? Perhaps Mr. Duncan can’t imagine what it might feel like to be Jewish when December rolls around, knowing that people can celebrate Christmas in their homes, churches, neighborhoods, clubs, the mall, city streets, grocery store aisles, on television—pretty much everywhere. Is it too much to ask that one’s own workplace might throw a holiday party that respects everyone who works there?

To those who cry “political correctness,” that’s just sloppy thinking. True, there are instances of unreasonable demands and entitled expectations, but that’s not the same as acknowledging that people who differ from you deserve a voice. Claims of minorities foisting agendas on our culture are laughably perpetuated by a majority whose cultural norms have been so foisted on the rest of us as to be set in concrete. Respect, tolerance, validation, accommodation: these are complicated and evolving ideals. Talk about them, argue, examine, disagree, but don’t dismiss them with disingenuous sound bites. 

One can argue that here in Tennessee, a blog post about gender-neutral pronouns is too fast, too soon. You can’t shove this stuff down people’s throats. One can also argue that marginalized people are tired of waiting. If not now, when? The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, with programs serving a student body from 50 states and 100 countries, is tasked with negotiating these sensitive questions. Utilizing speakers, training sessions, book discussions, and mentoring, the staff is working to fulfill the mission of teaching students to work across differences so when they get into the real world, they can handle the real world. They are doing their part in keeping UT relevant and competitive. Legislators should get out of the way and let them do their job.

We don’t live in a monoculture. The University of Tennessee is diverse whether or not there’s an Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Legislators can approve or disapprove of anybody they like in their private lives but if—as public officials with influence over a public university—they intend to write off huge swaths of actual human beings, they need to get another job. 

Catherine Landis

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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