A Wisconsin School’s Privilege Controversy Shows How “Diversity” Fails Us

A group of children of different races doing schoolwork.
Just having difference in the same room isn’t enough. MachineHeadz/Thinkstock

Every January, schools across the country cobble together some kind of programming to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Whether it’s taking students to a local civil rights museum or serving fried chicken and collard greens, every local school administrator puts their own spin on the holiday. In a town about forty minutes outside of Milwaukee, a group of students and teachers decided to include a privilege aptitude test in their MLK day festivities. The test, modeled after one given by the National Civil Rights Museum, asked students to respond to statements like “The majority of the staff at my school look like me” with yes or no. They then broke out into small groups to discuss their answers and were asked to fill out an exit card that tasked them with raising awareness around the concept of privilege with their family and friends. Pretty innocuous, right? Wrong.

Some local parents were so incensed by this “classic example of [a] school bullying the community” that they soon contacted the Oconomowoc Area School District, and their local conservative radio host, to voice their anger. Within a month, the high school’s principal resigned and now the school district has moved to limit discussions of white privilege. Donald Wiemer, the school board president, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that, “our board is fine with discussions about diversity … but white privilege is a lightning rod for some parents.” He added: “We have poor people in Oconomowoc who are saying they’re not privileged … and people that say, ‘Don, we worked our butts off to have what we have.’ ”

Besides the blatant censorship, there a few things wrong with this decision imposed, not by local snowflake children, but by their parents and school administrators. The first is that these parents are sorely mistaken in what they believe white privilege means—it’s almost as if they didn’t even read the exercise their kids were so cruelly forced to do. White privilege doesn’t mean that your life is free from hardship or that you’ve never worked a day in your life; it means that, in a rough metaphor, you started a race 30 yards ahead of your competitor who was also carrying a backpack full of rocks. You still ran the race; their race was harder. The second, and arguably the more insidious, is how the move demonstrates the failure of “diversity,” as exemplified by the fact that a school board that can shut down any talk of white privilege can then feel absolved by saying they’re “fine with discussions around diversity.”

In recent years, diversity has become a nice, catch-all way to describe the inclusion of various underrepresented groups of people into majority-white spaces. It’s a wishy-washy word that tries to express a desirable outcome (some notion of social inclusion) without quite describing how an organization or society is going to get there. Rather than reaching for equity, diversity merely asks for a certain amount of people who look different from each to be in the room without fighting. As sociologist Ellen Berrey wrote for Salon in 2015, “Rather than a righteous fight for justice or effective anti-discrimination laws, we get a celebration of cultural difference as a competitive advantage. Diversity, we are told, is an end goal with instrumental pay-offs: good for learning, good for the bottom line, even good for white people.”

The framework of diversity, which tries to collapse goals like racial equality or gender parity into value-adds for a company or institution, is easily broadened to include any kind of difference—thus hindering any real kind of social progress. Diversity can then mean, for example, having an all-white, mostly male, and Ivy-League educated op-ed board, as long as some of them are supposedly conservative. It’s so much easier to advocate for diversity—for having undefined ‘difference’ in the room—than confronting the ways in which your life has been made easier because you’re white or able-bodied or straight or otherwise. And that’s what makes diversity rhetoric so unhelpful: It allows us to feel complacent with our good intentions rather than pushing us to actually work to correct real injustice in the world.