I am a straight, white, Lutheran man who grew up in a small South Dakota town where the population of 800 was almost entirely white Protestants.
In Whitewood, diversity meant having French ancestry instead of only German and Norwegian. This reflects a fundamental issue in my life’s education leading to my time in college: I had no familiarity with people of backgrounds that weren’t the white working class of South Dakota.
There are a lot of things that are hard to comprehend when all evidence is removed by hundreds of miles without a connection. Plato wrote that Socrates was the wisest of all men, and that was because he knew what he didn’t know.
My little Black Hills bubble made it very difficult to appreciate the breadth of information and experiences I didn’t know.
In elementary school, I was taught that racism died in the ’60s. Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream and the right to vote was more widely expanded, every race pretty much got along. I saw no reason to think that anything else might be a reality.
With the election of Barack Obama when I was in the sixth grade, it really did seem like there was a solid case that the doors of opportunity were open to all Americans. This wasn’t really evidence, I just couldn’t see what proved the contrary.
I didn’t see anyone acting against minority communities, but it’s really hard to discriminate against someone who isn’t present.
Optimistically, I never saw someone discriminated against because Whitewood, SD is a place free of prejudice. Realistically, I never saw it because there were no minority groups – racial, religious or otherwise – to hate in our homogeneity.
I got out of this when I left for college. Perhaps it’s because of the politically polarized time we live in, but the time since my high school graduation has shown me just how far the world hasn’t come.
Being around people of different backgrounds has allowed me to understand what’s meant by concepts not readily apparent in my hometown, i.e. institutional racism. I don’t experience these things myself.
If I’m being honest, I’m really glad I haven’t had to experience these things myself, but hearing the firsthand experiences of people who’ve been through these things and knowing people who are or will be affected makes the problems of the world so much more real and believable.
There was a time that I was very, very angry at the idea of Affirmative Action. I didn’t see how a more diverse campus could benefit anyone’s education, but I did see money and admission slots not going to me (for whatever reason). Ignorant, I know, but I didn’t have any way to know I was being ignorant.
Here, my roommate is a Muslim from Sri Lanka, an island nation my mother – who’s spent the whole of her life in Whitewood – wasn’t aware existed.
Perhaps this campus isn’t as diverse as I think it is. Perhaps I really haven’t learned as much as I believe. Perhaps I’m just imagining myself to be more worldly than I really am. But now I know that I have a lot to learn, and, as Alfred North Whitehead said, “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge.”
If the purpose of education is to promote knowledge, I’ve grown to appreciate the strength of diversity to promote knowledge.
Smith is a member of College Democrats and the Political Science League.