LTTE: A token of whose esteem? Or a token of my extreme?

Deepak Sarma, Professor of Religious Studies at CWRU

A family friend whose child is considering applying to Case Western Reserve University was surprised to see my picture in the “Think Humanities” brochure handed out by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to anxious parents and prospective students. I obtained a copy last week and was concurrently pleased and perplexed by the use of my image in a publication that was in service of marketing CWRU. While I was pleased with the dynamic shot of me in academic action—teaching and professing—and perhaps, a token of the esteem to which I was held by at least one person at CWRU, I was distraught that I had, at the same time, become the token of inclusivism and diversity. As much as I preferred the former, my worries about tokenism were confirmed when I noted that even though there were labels identifying other pictures in the brochure, there was no label identifying me by name, much less as a senior faculty member, a student or staff. In this connection, I have transformed from being a faculty member of color in the Humanities to being a mere token of CWRU’s diversity. This is even more egregious when one considers that there are only a handful of minority faculty members in the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences. Why was I the chosen one? What falsehoods are being perpetuated here? 

Alas, this is not the first time that my visage was used to tout diversity by an academic institution. When I was a mere visiting student at Reed College in 1989, a photographer followed me around and took some pictures that later appeared in the 1989-90 Reed College Catalog. At that time there were hardly any people of color (POC) at Reed, much less in Portland, Oregon. The use, or abuse, of my image in the name of diversity at that time may have helped to attract other POC to the Reed Community. It also may have had the simultaneous effect at that time of assuaging Birkenstock-wearing liberals on the West coast. On the other hand, it may have proven to skeptical viewers just how painfully homogenous things actually were.    

So, what would my image in this brochure do at CWRU, when there is more student diversity than faculty diversity? What would the STEM-oriented parent and prospective student think, besides the surprise that CWRU has humanities at all? Oh, I forget, the reader has no way of knowing if the picture is of a student, a faculty member, a staff member or, and I like this last possibility the most, the crème de la crème of the Ford Modeling Agency! Or do prospective students laugh at the blatant attempt at tokenism? And indirectly laugh at me—an unidentified brown person gesticulating enthusiastically?

Or is the Admissions Office encouraging them to “Think Beyond the Possible”? Which, of course, is an impossible task.         

There are thus several points to consider. First, is it permissible to use tokenism in the service of developing and fostering diversity? Nagarjuna, the second century Madhyamaka Buddhist philosopher, suggests that one can use language as an upaya, skillful means, to deconstruct and move beyond language. Is this the same sort of strategy? Use a token image of POC to end homogeneity? Or is such tokenism dishonest and, even worse, another example of privileged people utilizing people of color for their own purposes?

Second, is it permissible to use such an image without an identifying label? Am I a generic POC? An exemplary one? Does not identifying me provoke racism? Or does it facilitate diversity? If fostering diversity is the goal, then wouldn’t it be better to include information about who I am? 

Third, how diverse should a college campus be? As I have written about in HuffPost, how many designated minority students, faculty and staff is enough for a campus to be considered diverse? Is a token minority, such as myself, sufficient? Or should the student makeup be reflective of demographics of the immediate region? The state? The nation? The world?

Fourth, will I ever appear—identified or not—in any CWRU publication again? Or will this publication result in my being black (or is it brown)-balled?

Some of my friends, who liked the picture, have told me that I should be pleased that I was used in this (esteemed?) publication. As much as I would like to be happy with it, I think that neither being asked nor being identified is more harmful than helpful. 

Anyway, a token of my esteem is now a token of my extreme.