My Case for Greater Inclusion in “Diversity”
I live and work in the academic world. There, let’s get that out of the way. However, I know from my students (over almost forty years) that many American corporations and businesses, government agencies and offices, etc., are also obsessed (no judgment implied) with diversity. (One can be obsessed with something with good cause; obsession with eradicating evil, for example, is a good thing.) I am going to say that “diversity” has become an obsession in today’s American academic, government, and business world.
But one thing I almost never hear in all the talk and training about diversity (in the contexts I mention above) is poverty. People who have experienced real poverty (which I will explain so keep reading) also constitute a “diversity population” and are “minoritized” people.
Here is what I mean: If and insofar as you have experienced real poverty you feel forced to hide it from people with whom you work because there is a social stigma to real poverty.
I know this from experience. Only as I approach retirement do I feel comfortable talking openly about my childhood experience of real poverty.
Here is another way of explaining it: I recognize (and have always recognized) that in my social situation people who know me assume that I have always been affluent or at least middle class. When I tell them that I experienced real poverty as a child I see amazement and sometimes disbelief on their faces.
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I have come to believe that poverty is one of the least recognized and acknowledged experiences qualifying someone to be valued as “diverse.” In the academic world almost everyone either grew up middle class or affluent or, if they experienced real poverty, hid it from those who interviewed them for positions.
In America, being poor is wrong. And the wrongness of that attitude (which is often unconscious) has not sunk in in places where it should have by now. Even those academics (and others) who express great compassion for “the poor” secretly (even to themselves) stigmatize “the poor” when it comes to admitting them to their ranks.
There are sign, points of light, of change in this situation. Recently the television program “60 Minutes” featured an ivy league university that is reserving a certain number of admissions for poor students. My question is this: Why not reserve a certain number of positions (staff, faculty) for men and women who have experienced real poverty? Only THEY can fully identify with the poor students and the poor students will be able to identify with them—IF both are fully able and free to tell their stories of living in poverty.So what do I mean by “real poverty?” I do not want to read any predictable responses like “Poor people in America would be considered rich in many other countries.” That is simply a conversation-stopping jibe at the poor who want to be taken seriously as having experiences most Americans do not have.
Here are my criteria for real poverty: food insecurity (not knowing if or when or how the next meal will come and not experiencing nutritious food), having to wear clothes that do not fit or are not suitable for the weather, being homeless (without any stable place to live except a car or a shelter or foster home), being unable to afford even minimal health care, and being unable to afford transportation and other necessities to hold a job. There may be other criteria and not every poor person experiences all of those criteria.
Anecdote: There is on Youtube a video of a lecture being given by a famous neo-conservative scholar claiming that in America anyone can get out of poverty in five years or less by themselves. This is the American myth best symbolized historically in the famous or infamous Horatio Alger series of books that featured a poor boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became affluent without anyone’s help. We love this myth.
I am not yet prepared to tell my story of experiencing poverty as a child. I will tell it here sometime in the future. For now all I wish to say is that I experienced all of the criteria stated above—except the one about transportation. I was a child. But my caretakers’ access to transportation was very limited.
I have no doubt that some of my physical ailments were/are the result of poverty (malnutrition, lack of medical care). But I will stop there (about myself) for now.
In my mind I can “hear” all kinds of objections to my proposal, but objections were raised about every minoritized group of people—at some point in this lengthy and complicated process of defining “diversity.” My one and only point is that having experienced real poverty involuntarily for a sustained period of time is a distinctive life experience that is stigmatized by our culture such that we ought to unstigmatize it and one way of doing that is to include it under the umbrella category of “diversity.”
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