Marginalized groups are not your zoo animals

In a memorable episode of tv program Scrubs, Turk a black surgeon complains about showing up twice in the same picture on the cover of the admissions brochure used by the college he had attended. The joke was probably in reference to an incident in 2000 in which the University of Wisconsin was caught photoshopping an image of a black man into a crowd shot used on the cover of their application booklet.

We live in a society in which many organizations claim to want to be more diverse and often strive in superficial ways to become more so. This often results in a swirl of diversity initiatives that create what I’ve come to refer to as professional nice diversity.

I use the term because the phenomenon shows up across a wide variety of contexts, from corporate to academic, private to public wherever a brochure or poster needs a smiling face for a “diversity event”.

The thing is protecting marginalized students and faculty from harm is hard, while taking a photo of a smiling sea of faces is easy.

I once had a professor say that the students in the class may find themselves being challenged by their classmates. There were admittedly a few ways that as a non-binary queer person, I felt like the statement framed my existence in the class a as a challenge for other students who had little experience with gender and sexuality minorities, which was not most comfortable position to find myself in.

One time I was at the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center and someone there had put on “Hurricane Bianca”, an LGBTQ themed film about a drag queen who seeks revenge on a town that wronged her. Unfortunately, it had to be turned off due to scenes featuring some potty humor and swearing and thus ran counter to current rules at center that forbid media content that featured those two things.

Justification for such rules when I’ve been to the center has included the fact that the school would be having tour groups coming from the center and thus we needed to present a respectable face to them. I can’t speak for anyone else but this reasoning made me feel like Minnesota State University, Mankato was treating us like zoo animals.

The problem is diversity, when used by marketing teams and admissions programs, can often come across like schools and businesses going, “look at all of these rare exotic queer folks and people of color who you can learn and benefit from if you come work or study here.”

We need to be able to exist just for ourselves not for others. We’re here, we’re queer, and we deserve to belong as we are, not as part of a benefits package for others.

Header Photo: In 2000, the University of Wisconsin-Madison drew criticism for photoshopping a picture of Diallo Shabazz into an admissions packet cover photo.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.Redlien@mnsu.edu

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