True Diversity

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Does concentrating on race, an external quality, keep us from having to consider more troubling kinds of differences?

Forty-seven percent Caucasian. Forty-two percent African-American. Seven percent Hispanic. Three percent Asian. Two percent multiracial. My high school loves to boast about its diversity, but the conversation rarely gets beyond race. Sometimes it expands to discuss students' different economic backgrounds, but mostly it's about the colors of their skin. A recent proposal to join with several other schools in similar population areas to explore ways of "closing the gap" in test scores is sure to keep our racial percentages in the news. I'm all for sharing information and raising academic performance, but there is an unacknowledged danger in this "all race, all the time" educational identity. By concentrating on racial and ethnic categories, my school, like many others, is ignoring the many other differences that give it its real diversity.

Diversity is not just racial. It's not just social. It's not just economic. It doesn't only have to do with family income or how long a person has been in this country. It also has to do with how hard a person works and what he or she wants in life. The 2,814 students who are my schoolmates have a wide range of ambitions. Some want to get into a top college. Some just want to get out of Saturday detention. Some dream of becoming a sports hero or a famous actor. Some hope that they can earn enough money at an after-school job to help support their families.

Think for a moment of what it would be like if school populations were documented in different terms. Does anybody know what proportion of students read outside of school? Why don't we ask how many students are more successful at their workplaces than they are in class? What if we divided our schools into those who can do 30 push-ups and those who can't? Would our world be different if we kept track of how many students could carry a tune? Would it be better? These are statistics that are harder to get than racial breakdowns, but that doesn't mean they are less important. To measure only race is to say that race is the only personal quality that matters.

There are, in fact, any number of ways to categorize people. A school can publicize its diversity until the end of time, but it doesn't mean a thing until it acknowledges that this diversity goes far beyond how many students have roots in poverty, privilege, or the Pacific Islands. Every student belongs to several different groups that transcend race and class. If people think of all the different ways they could be identified, they might be willing to expand their horizons, from joining an activity none of their friends favors to taking a class they never considered before. If students have the courage to identify themselves by their interests, abilities, and ambitions, they will, at least by example, teach others to look beyond the color of their skin. But how can they do this if their school insists on emphasizing racial categories?

Perhaps the real problem is the assumption that an ideal student body looks multicultural but acts homogeneous. To fully embrace diversity, schools must acknowledge that their students vary in more ways than one. Diversity is not just a slogan. It means that there is real variation in the school population. While a school's job is to educate everyone, the range of educational goals and interests means that different students follow very different routes in life, and some of their paths never cross. A real understanding of differences means accepting that not everyone will know or even want to know everyone else. Does concentrating on race, an external quality, keep us from having to consider more troubling kinds of differences?

In the end, the truth is that life is full of inequalities that have nothing to do with the color of your skin. What really separates individuals is how much ambition, responsibility, and talent they have, or how little. Ambition crosses racial categories. So do talent and the drive to be successful in life. While race is certainly an important aspect of life at my school and many others, it is not the only way students show their differences. Some students will never be good at soccer, some will never survive an Advanced Placement English class, some will never show up for early-bird biology lab. Some care. Some don't. And that, not race, is the real dividing line.

Lucia Smith is a junior at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill.

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