“Stand up if you identify as Caucasian.”
The minister’s voice was solemn. I paused so that I wouldn’t be the first one standing, and then slowly rose to my feet. “Look at your community,” he said. I glanced around the auditorium obediently. The other students looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and as white. ¨Thank you,” the minister said finally. After we sat down, he went on to repeat the exercise for over an hour with different adjectives in place of “Caucasian”: black, wealthy, first-generation, socially conservative. Each time he introduced a new label, he paused so that a new group of students could stand and take note of one another. By the time he was finished, every member of Princeton University’s freshman class had been branded with a demographic.
This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity. The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews.
Why were the university administrators, who speak so highly of diversity, choosing to strip us of our individuality? No doubt their intentions were good. In an effort to appear enlightened and progressive, they wanted to show their appreciation for the distinctions between various cultures. Unfortunately, this is hard to do without forcing members of each culture to assimilate to the most extreme stereotypes of their group. And so the administration chose to celebrate our cultural diversity as a student body, at the cost of our individual diversity as students.
Like many other schools, Princeton has become disturbingly homogeneous because of this phenomenon. Not only that, but the pressure to respect other groups on and off campus is pushing my generation into left-wing uniformity. We are encouraged to mind our own business by mimicking politically correct values without ever thinking them through on our own. No one questioned the students and faculty members who disrespectfully walked out of Charles Murray’s lecture hall after he was invited to speak on campus this winter.
My teachers and classmates openly referred to Trump’s voters as uneducated bigots throughout the election season, while taking any criticism of Clinton as an attack against women. Anyone who dares to voice a religious opinion is regarded as unintelligent. The fear of being called racist draws our attention to a black woman’s skin instead of her character, and the fear of being called homophobic emphasizes a gay man’s sexuality over his personality. We have been trained to tiptoe around each other and distribute trigger warnings with generosity.
We’ve forgotten how to look past the extremist values of the groups we identify with, and instead celebrate our nuanced differences as individuals. Walt Whitman wrote: “I am less the reminder of property or qualities, and more the reminder of life.”
The point of diversity is not that each culture is different, but that each person must live his own life and develop his own worldview. As Whitman eloquently noted, “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself.” But instead of letting us travel it by ourselves, Princeton limits us by constantly pressuring us to behave and think like others in our demographic.
This concerns not only my university and others like it, but the future of our nation as a democracy. The less we respect our individuality, the more likely we are to blindly follow partisan values. This prompts an extremist us-vs-them mentality that builds barriers between Republicans and Democrats, African-Americans and Caucasians, and the wealthy and the poor. Because we’re afraid of considering any opinion that is foreign to our demographic, we can’t hear any voices except those that agree with us. This is especially true in light of the recent election. Trump’s supporters ask each other who could possibly trust Clinton, and Clinton’s supporters ask each other who would dare validate Trump; but neither group finds answers because of the wall between them.
Embracing our singularity would allow us to see past these walls and genuinely consider each other’s ideas. For the sake of democracy, we should take the spotlight off our various backgrounds and focus instead on our personal and idiosyncratic worldviews. Though our minds crave different knowledge, our bodies explore different feelings and our hearts beat to different rhythms, we all share the gift and burden of citizenship. There is a beautiful history of personal sacrifice in the relationship between diversity and democracy.
Diversity is the celebration of individuality and nonconformity, and democracy is most precious when it allows three hundred million individuals to reach a compromise out of love for their country. As Whitman wrote in his Democratic Vistas, “there is nothing grander… than a well-contested American national election.”
Let’s not lose sight of that grandeur.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.