Diversity is more than a number

Last summer, as a rising junior, the college admissions game caught up with me. A walk with friends on a cloudless day turned into an odd mixture of college counseling and ranting until we began discussing “hooks,” appealing traits that supposedly set a student apart from colossal applicant pools. The “underrepresented minority” hook is the most popular. It was through this lens that I finally revealed my heritage to my friends, a revelation that garnered shocked and borderline envious responses.

As a Mexican and Salvadoran American, the responses I have gotten to my ethnicity have ranged from indifferent to skeptical. Nevertheless, I have grown accustomed to stereotypes and even embrace my supposed racial ambiguity. But after two years in high school, I had realized that even in the statistically diverse tech hub of the Bay Area, diversity is little more than an empty buzzword. My friends, whom I had known since middle school, were preoccupied with racial advantages instead of cultural nuances. My school, which boasts a liberal education, has neglected to define diversity.

We live one of the most diverse states in the country, second only to Hawaii. San Mateo County public education ranks fifth out of 58 in the state in diversity, and the county is home to individual niches of diversity, including one of the largest Tongan populations outside of Polynesia. 25 percent of Burlingame High sophomores and seniors identify themselves as mixed race. Our school has exceeded standards in diversity, yet we are not so different than any other school when it comes to cultural expression.

Students like junior Samantha Drake have faced discrimination, directly and indirectly, citing the times her ethnicity was questioned by her peers and when her sister, a BHS alumnus, was told to downplay her roles Chinese heritage when she applied for a job.

“We’re half white and half Chinese, but our last name is European,” says Drake. “My mom was worried about my sister being discriminated against in the job application process, so she told my sister not to mention the Chinese American clubs she participated in in high school,” Drake says that discrimination is forcing students to conceal or emphasize heritage based on artificial diversity rather than corporate quotas and college admissions processes.

College and corporate quotas oversimplify culture. While artificial diversity can open doors to racial minorities who have been shut out by local workplaces, there must be more conversation accompanying quotas.

It would be unfair to place the blame on a public high school for compounding a nationwide issue with diversity. However, there are steps we can take to make the numbers measuring ethnic diversity represent real student culture.

Members of Model United Nations, who are accustomed to discussing racial and ethnic tensions in UN simulations, generally maintain that the way we approach diversity as a society is flawed. Although quotas do have merits, they cannot reverse racial tensions.

“Burlingame High School does not have a very strong Asian American community,” senior Erin Woo said.

“Even though there are a lot of ethnically diverse groups, they’re pretty segregated. People tend to stick with people of the same culture.”

Self-segregation is a major caveat in the promise of diversity. Statistics cannot measure this factor, which can be seen in even the most liberal of areas, just like Burlingame. Even when race is not a deciding factor in one’s friend groups, subtle cultural and economic factors threaten to undermine efforts to diversify school campuses and workplaces.

Another issue we must confront when addressing racism through artificial diversity is assimilation. Racial diversity is appealing on paper until cultural awareness becomes lacking, in which case assimilation becomes a means to adapt. Some members of MUN maintained that assimilation has resulted in a united American culture, especially helpful for those who do not connect with some aspects of their heritage. However, this separate identity undermines diversity when people forget all aspects of their heritage to fall in line with the status quo.

The problem isn’t that the school is predominantly white. Nor is blatant racism the problem. Those who seek diversity and equality must take another step forward. Since we can’t mandate diversity, the best approach is discussion, acknowledgment, and breaking down the us-them dynamic that defines racism.

Posted on March 21, 2017 .