Diversity In Linguistics

Since the Supreme Court last week decided against Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky’s policies of assuring a certain degree of racial diversity in public schools, we have heard much about the undoing of Brown v. Board.

However, I have a hard time mourning the decision, though the brute notion that we must ignore race to get beyond it is, surely, simplistic.
Preliminarily, I think of the plethora of schools nationwide where all the students are brown and yet excellence is a norm. I think of the fact that to the extent that black teens tar excelling in school as “acting white,” it tends to be when they go to school with white people, as scholarly studies have shown.

Yet I openly admit that my discomfort with racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences in education is also based in part on gut impressions – based on my own experiences in academia over, now, almost 20 years. Too often, commitment to “diversity” has nothing to do with recognizing the humanity and individuality of the persons in question, and much to do with reaffirming other people’s sense of moral legitimacy.

As it happens, it was ten years ago this week that I had one such experience.

Every two summers, linguists have a kind of summer camp, the Linguistic Society of America Institute, where linguists from around the world give mini-courses for students on a college campus. I was invited to teach at the one in 1997.


There was a biweekly “diversity” meeting, where issues related to same were supposed to be “aired.” The person who had been appointed to lead that meeting, along with assorted faculty members associated with it, were especially excited about the impending arrival of someone I will call Terry Allen.

Terry is black.

Terry, as it happened, had left linguistics a good ten-plus years before, not long into a first job, for other pursuits (within the academy), before having had the opportunity to make any particular mark, and was stopping by the Institute just to keep in touch. Terry had also not, as most black American linguists, worked in a subfield of linguistics devoted to racial issues in any meaningful way.

Yet there was this buzzing excitement in certain quarters about the arrival of Terry. The mere enunciation of “Terry Allen” was so frequent that it almost sounded like a bird call. “When is Terry Allen coming? Terry Allen! Terry Allen!”

But really, the sole reason anyone was so excited about Terry coming was because Terry was black. Terry had left the field long ago; it wasn’t about an oeuvre these people respected and wanted to meet the author of. None of the people knew anything at all about Terry except skin color.

That was especially clear when the Diversity Meeting coordinator happened, at the dining hall, to sit down the table from another black attendee she hadn’t met. “Are you Terry Allen?!?!” she exclaimed – but it was not. The attendee was offended, and brought it up at the next “diversity” meeting, upon which the coordinator got a little ugly, upon which the attendee asked why the coordinator had to get that way, upon which the coordinator – a Latina – said that in her culture it was traditional to get feisty in confrontations.

It seemed to me that “diversity” was not doing anybody any good at that meeting, nor in people being all a-twitter at the imminent arrival of Terry for no reason except that Terry was not white.

I hung out with Terry. Great fun. And at one point when we were doing so, a white bright light in linguistics walked by and genially said “Aha – what are you two cooking up?”

“You two.” What made us “two”? I need not even specify. He was no “racist;” he is, in fact, quite sensitive to race issues in America, as I have seen here and there since. He recently invited me to speak at a conference on the basis of my work alone, race not an issue. But still – I cannot imagine him tossing off the “cooking up” comment if I had been talking to someone white, or if Terry had been talking to someone white.

That we were black stood out for him more than anything else about us, just as the various cheeping heralds of the arrival of Terry were not aroused by any article or book of Terry’s – which none of them could have even named.

That week ten years ago, to me, is “diversity” in the academy. On paper, it’s about getting past race. In reality, too often it’s about people reaffirming their moral solidity by having black people around, and/or ranking people’s melanin over their indiviuality. I could tell a good dozen “Terry” type stories.

This kind of thing is so frequent and so consistent in the academy that liberal and leftist fans of “diversity” can no more dismiss them as “anecdotes” than they would stories of the police abusing black men.

John McWhorter

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

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