Mark, thank you so much. Walking over here from your house just a few minutes ago I was just struck by the difference that a person can make in how a place feels. I’ve been on campus for most of the afternoon and had a chance to see how beautiful it is and learn a little a bit about the institutions here at Hobart and William Smith and of course the lake. I live in Seattle near lots of big bodies of water and I’m always drawn to that. As I was walking around and being shown around campus I started reflecting on how much I would love a place like this if it weren’t being led by somebody like Mark. I actually had a chance to walk around a bit with Mark and everywhere we went there was just this incredible outpouring of warmth. Not in a staged way, not in an official way, but people know Mark, and so people said hello and Mark said hello to them and asked them about their work and I think it’s a remarkable thing. And maybe some of you who’ve gotten used to it and are part of the family on campus here don’t recognize fully how remarkable it is, but when you’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of campuses… you all have something special here with Mark and I’m very proud to be here under his auspices. It’s really a great honor.
I’m also just very grateful to all of you for being here today, because I know this conversation tonight is part of a longer conversation you all are having not just over these 24, 36 hours but over the course of many of your careers, whether as students or as teachers, about some very basic questions, which are "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?" and "What am I obligated to do?" and "What am I supposed to leave behind?" "How am I supposed to make anything add up or matter in what I do?" These are the questions.
They’re not questions about the mechanics of multiculturalism or theories of race and racial construction, although there are plenty of good conversations to be had about those things. When you boil all that down, what we’re all gathered here tonight is to ask ourselves, just individually and as a community, why are we here? What is it that even brought us together? In what way are we gathered here tonight a community?
I wanted to speak briefly tonight about a couple different themes that I hope will illuminate your own thinking on those questions and hopefully we’ll have some time afterwards for some Q and A and conversation.
The themes that I wanted to speak about tonight are very simple. One is what I call “The churn”--the churn of race and culture. And the other theme is just about the challenge--the challenge of unity--and then the third piece that I want to talk about this evening is simply the obligations that fall on us when we reckon both with the churn and the challenges.
Let me talk a little bit about each of those things.
The churn. What do I mean by the churn? Mark and I were talking as we walked over here about what would it be like in 25 years if we could see, if we were to return to this campus, or just to look at any other dimension of American life. And how would we regard this moment that we’re right now in 2005 on questions of race and identity and ethnicity and diversity of all different kinds? Would we see this as a turning point? Would we see this as a high water mark? How would we see it?
And to me it’s a very interesting question and it reflects on the fact that we are living I think in some of the most interesting, vibrant, exciting, and dangerous times in American history, as far as issues of race and identity are concerned. The churn that I’m talking about is the churn of culture, race, identity, labels, and how all of these incredible forces of technology, of media, of increased immigration, of increased interracial marriage and adoption, of lines and boundaries and borders between groups blurring in all kinds of crazy ways—everything’s being churned.
And all the old boxes and all the old labels we have for all the old boxes and all of the safety that we all derived from knowing that those boxes were there, even if we were sometimes being put unfairly in one of those boxes, on some psychological level we derived safety, security, at least orientation from the knowledge of those boxes.
Well, those boxes are being broken apart. Those labels are being torn in half and then one half is getting mixed with another half and they’re coming up with all kinds of new hybrids. We live in this age that--you know I was flipping through a magazine one day and I came across a quote by the comedian Chris Rock, and it was a great quote. I don’t have it here with me, but I’ll roughly paraphrase it. He was reflecting on the kind of churn of identity and the ways in which labels and sounds and names and faces and everything else like that were getting mixed up and jumbled in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a generation earlier and his joke was "you know the world is going crazy when the best golfer out there is a black guy, when the best rapper out there is a white guy, and the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese." And I thought about that and I thought, it’s kind of true, that we do live in this age of Tiger Woods and Eminem and Yao Ming and all three of them are equally forceful parts of pop culture, of our media consciousness, of our identities, and all of these images, all of these icons is what they are (they aren’t religious icons, but in our civic religion they are the icons of our age), these kinds of celebrities, they are mixing up and jumbling all of our old received notions of what it means to be – fill in the blank. What does it mean to be African American? Well, it means ABC and well, no, it means GX and Q.
What does it mean to be Asian American? Well, it used to mean you know when I was growing up that you were a model minority and you were a high achieving, overachieving, academic nerd. But that’s not Yao Ming, nor is that the tens of thousands of Asian Americans who are barely getting by living on welfare and struggling academically, socially, psychologically, in cities all around the country. The reality of our lives is getting so jumbled far past the abilities of labels and stereotypes to contain the reality. And you know the Asian American community in identity itself I think is emblematic in some ways of this churn.
My first book, "The Accidental Asian," was all about on one level race from a second-generation perspective—I’m a child of immigrants—and the ways that race and identity play out for somebody who’s second generation, but more broadly it was about where do Asian Americans fit in to our broader conversations in this country about race, and how does the way that we do or don’t fit in into these conversations reveal something about the nature of those conversations. Those are the kinds of questions that I try to pursue in "The Accidental Asian." When you stop and look at the Asian American community today it is so emblematic of all these different forces of churn.
For one thing, let’s think about the label itself. Asian American. Asian. Here’s a label that purports to categorize, with one identity, with one demographic, with one sense of voting block, with one mind, people who come or whose ancestors come from dozens of countries, who speak dozens of languages, who practice many different kinds of religions, whose ancestors were at war with each other are still at war with each other whose values are shaped by very different forces and traditions of history, politics, war, being on the victor’s side, being on the victim’s side, there is within this little label called Asian in fact the full breadth, and the full diversity of humanity itself. And yet, in the American context, where Asian was one of five boxes to check we very simply shorthand it into meaning something.
But the reality is that with each passing day, with each passing generation of Asian Americans who enter into places like these institutions here, or enter into any other dimension of public life, that that label cannot hold. It cannot hold the teaming reality of diversity within it. Another way in which the Asian American identity is emblematic of this churn is that fact that it’s a community that is itself being transformed by interracial marriage, by interracial adoption. And so everywhere I go, I travel around the country to a lot of different campuses and I will often speak to Asian American student groups, you can no longer assume that when you get an e-mail from somebody with an Asian surname that they’re going to have an Asian face, and nor can you assume that when their surname is not Asian that they won’t have an Asian face. Name, face, place, label, they used to be aligned in this very comfortable way and they’re not anymore. That alignment is completely up for grabs now and it’s only going to be more so over the course of the next generation.
I think that this churn I’m talking about makes, as I say, our time very exciting. It allows us, no matter what age you are, no matter what station and place and perspective you come from, it allows you to question anew a lot of things that people haven’t been questioning for a very long time about what identity means, about the usefulness and utility of labels, about the role of race, and about the myths that go along with that because even at the same time that I’m talking about this kind of churn in every community—Asian American, African American, Latino—in every community there are still structural forces at work, that still hold people’s lives not in the 21st century but somewhere back in the first third of the 20th century in terms their outlook, in terms of their opportunities, in terms of what they believe is possible in their lives. Yet, when you think about, particularly for the students in the room here tonight, your generation, you think about who you know, you think about who you’re dating, who you might marry, what your children might look like, what languages they might speak, what religious and ethnic and cultural traditions are going to flow into their lives it is just literally and figuratively as dramatic as the leap was in the 1950s from black and white TV to color TV.
And your generation is going to be defining the terms of that change. Your generation is going to define what’s allowable and what’s not. Your generation is going to define where and when those borderlines and boxes matter and where and when they don’t. This is the iPod random shuffle generation. You are going to be shuffling all kinds of identities and splicing and mixing and weaving together and creating new hybrids and that to me is a very powerful and exciting thing. Now, in the midst of all this churn, this change, the ways in which old labels and old traditions no longer hold, in the midst of this, while we can be excited and while we can look at this with a certain amount of hopefulness, it also to me presents not just a challenge, but perhaps The Central American challenge. It presents it in as stark a way as we’ve ever faced it. Which is, how do we hold things together? How do we create a sense of unity out of this? Because it’s not simply diversity, it’s diversity on steroids. It’s diversity on orders of magnitude greater than what had been imagined in our parents or their parents lifetimes. And the challenge now of creating unity is a very real challenge because for as much as it has become part of the civic religion, and the kind of non-spiritual gospel of American life, that diversity is something to be celebrated, and that diversity is good, the hard facts are, the reality is that in any context, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a town, or a corporation, or a campus, or a church, or whatever, the reality is that the more diverse that population gets the more difficult it is to create community, the more difficult it is to weave bonds of trust, the more difficult it is to generate new stocks of social capital. Those are the realities of diversity. That is the challenge that’s before us right now.
And I think one of the things when we reflect on this challenge has gone missing. You could say that, well, Eric, this is a challenge that is as old as American life itself, and yeah, things are moving much more quickly now because of the media and everything, and there’s more immigration from more parts of the world than there used to be. But heck, you know, when European immigrants were coming to this country at the turn of the last century and they were coming from Greece, and from France and from Germany and from Ireland, and from England, what have you, that that was a lot of conflict too, and there was a lot of diversity there that led to bloodletting and led to fierce sense of division and a sense of unalterable difference, and we made it through that. And that is true, we did make it though that, but there are two things that are very fundamentally different about our time, and the kind of diversity that we’re facing right now. Number one is that the diversity that people talk about in nostalgic terms when they talk about the melting pot of the 20th century was a diversity of white ethnic groups. Now they were people, Irish, Germans, the French, the English, the Greeks, the Italians, who regarded each other almost as if they were from different species, and didn’t like each other, they had what you would think of as racist thoughts about each other, but the limited genius of the American experiment at that time was that through the magic of assimilation in this country they all became white.
The Germans, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, they all became white. And whiteness became a way to assert your Americanness. Well, whiteness doesn’t mean anything in the abstract. What whiteness meant in good measure was , non-blackness. Noncoloredness. So as long as you didn’t have color we could get over the fact, after a few years and a few gang fights and the rest, get over the fact that you’re Irish and I’m Italian. Or what have you. So that’s one big difference, that the melting pot that we like to celebrate and commemorate was in good measure a white melting pot. And today, the flow and the influx of all kinds of genes, dreams, ideas, sounds, languages, flavors, is completely global, and so our challenge is truly one an order of magnitude greater.
But the other reason why I think our challenge is much steeper today than it was in previous generations where there’ve been big waves of immigration and big moments of this kind of churn and change is that today, in 2005, compared to 1965, 1925, 1885, the opportunities for shared experience have begun to fall away. The spaces and the places in community life and civic life where a century ago where Italians and Irish and everybody else did merge together, did play together, did work together, did plan the affairs of their block or their neighborhood together, all of those institutions have begun to wither away.
And the idea of shared experience now is falling by the wayside in a lot of ways not just that our Rotary Clubs and our scouting organizations and our Chambers of Commerce and these kinds of things are graying and declining and shrinking their membership, but also again to those of you who are in the student generation, in the younger generation, that your whole mindset today is not so much about trying to find as wide a range of different people with whom you can be forced to find something in common ,your whole experience through media, through consumption of media, through the ways that you organize, through the ways that your social lives are formed, are about being more empowered than any other generation of students has ever been to find people just like you.
To find that online community of people just like you. To find that group of people who share just your taste in music. To find those groups of people who share exactly your views on politics. It’s easier than ever to find birds of a feather. What’s gotten harder is for us to find, enter, sustain and expand spaces where we get thrown together with birds of completely unlike feathers. Of completely different feathers. Birds with no feathers. And are asked to acknowledge the birdness of each other. Asked to acknowledge the common humanity of each other. Those spaces, those opportunities for shared experience have really begun to wither.
I’ve spent the last 2 ½ years working on a book that Mark referenced, called "Guiding Lights." This book is about life-changing teachers and mentors from all different walks of life. Everything from a Hollywood acting coach to a Marine drill instructor, a master clown, a gangland priest, an innercity entrepreneur, from all corners of the country, all cultures, all backgrounds. And the thinking that I did, over the course of these 2 ½ years, was to search out stories and at first my orientation, or my mindset, was, "I want to find as diverse a range of people as I possibly can. I’m just going to throw darts at the wall, I’m just going to go to places where the darts land and I’m going to find interesting people there and I’m going to learn stuff."
And for a good long time that served me well, because I did go out and push myself into places where I didn’t have the comfort normally to go and to enter into professions and to domains and realms where I was a complete outsider, and stranger, and kind of force myself to if not learn their language at least learn the humility to not pretend I knew their language. And as I did this, my orientation began to shift. After a certain point I realized, I don’t need to keep going anymore. I’ve already talked to 300 different people from all these different walks and cultures and backgrounds. I don’t need to find another 300.
Because the thing that became very clear to me after a while was that in that first 300 all their stories one after the other, one way or another, one layer beneath another, all their stories were the same. All their stories spoke to some universal human yearnings, yearnings to have somebody show us the way, yearnings to show someone else the way. Yearnings to be part of something bigger than just yourself, yearnings to leave a mark on the world that was going to live and last beyond your time here. It didn’t matter if you were talking to Pueblo Indian potters in northern New Mexico, African American quiltmakers in the Mississippi Delta, race car drivers in Phoenix, Arizona, baseball pitching coaches in Seattle, innercity entrepreneurs in southeast Washington, D.C., it didn’t matter who you were talking to, you began to see after a time the universal cords of connection that held all these stories together.
And that revelation was something that was very powerful to me because it began to show me, not the limits of diversity, but began to make me reflect anew on the purposes of diversity. Because what good is it at the end of the day to keep on collecting another 50 or another 100 or another 2 or 300 stories, or people or vignettes of all these people from all different backgrounds and cultures? What good was it going to be if I wasn’t at some point going to stop and try to connect the dots? The capacity to connect dots I think is something that Americans have gotten worse at over time. And it’s also something that, if there’s one thing that a liberal arts institution of higher education is meant to do is to give you the capacity to connect dots wherever you go. And to see the ways in which each of your stories is connected to somebody else’s story and each of your disciplines connected to another discipline. Each of your histories connected to another history. In all these travels that I did for the book "Guiding Lights," no matter who I was talking to, it didn’t matter what their deal was, I would ask them the same two questions over and over again. I would ask them, "who influenced you?" And I would ask them "how are you passing it on?"
And to my mind it does not have to get a whole lot more complicated than that. I know that in the field of mentoring and certainly in classroom teaching that there’s a lot of the equivalent of rocket science being poured into it. There’s a lot of high science to analyzing the dynamics, the psychology, the pedagogy, the technique but you don’t have to go to the rocket science to see that those two questions—"who influenced you?" and "how are you passing it on?"—are just about enough for you to get straight to the heart of another human being and straight to the heart of what their dreams and purposes are.
Because you cannot put those two questions before somebody, it doesn’t matter if you’ve known them for 30 years or for 30 minutes, if you put those two questions before them in a serious way and you invite them to take an inventory, silent or otherwise, of the people who have shaped them for good and for ill, the experiences that have formed them, and then you invite them as well after they’ve taken that inventory, to think about OK, what are the ways in which I am now passing that on at home, at work, at play, in my roles as a teacher, in my role as a boss, in my role as a neighbor, in my role as a student, in my role as a counselor, in my role as a friend, my role as a child, how in every social role that I play am I passing that on?
You cannot put those two questions before somebody and not enable them to become mindful to see with new eyes that web of relationship and obligation that holds all of us together. To see the ways in which the dots do connect. But to my mind, as I reflected in coming here about the question of diversity and what diversity can and cannot teach us, I wanted to add a third question to those two questions of "who influenced you?" and "how you pass it on?" and the third question is "how diverse are your answers to the first two questions?"
Are they as diverse as they possibly could be? Every one of us has been shaped, for good or for ill. Even if you’ve been neglected all your life you’ve been shaped. You’ve been shaped by that neglect. Now think about it: who are the parents, the pastors, the professors, who are the teammates, the coaches, who are the strangers, who are the friends, who are the enemies, who have formed you? And how diverse is that pool of people? Because I’ll tell you the answer right now, for every single one of us in this room—not diverse enough. Not diverse enough because there is no excuse in the year 2005 in this age of churn when access to someone else’s experience, to the voice, and mind and heart, of somebody who looks nothing like you, thinks nothing like you, and talks nothing like you, in this day and age when this access is so easy, there is no excuse, no excuse for us not to be trying every minute of every day to be increasing the diversity quotient of our pool of influences. Intellectual, spiritual, social, familial, whatever.
And by the same token there is no excuse ultimately except the excuse of there only being 24 hours in a day for use to turn around and think about who we’re passing that on to. Are we only passing on our values, our hard-won experience, our knowledge, our skills, are we only passing them on to people who think like us, talk like us, look like us, worship like us? Are we only passing them on to people who feel safe to us? Are we only passing them on to people who we have reason to believe will accept our offering in the first place? Or are we pushing ourselves beyond that comfort zone? Are we pushing ourselves to a place where we begin to pass on who we are and how to be to people who on the surface of it have no concept of who we are or how we try to be.
That’s the challenge. That’s the obligation.
And you can ask yourself, well, why does it matter? Life is short, you have homework, you have papers to grade, school year’s ending, you’ve got 50 other things to worry about, you’re trying to plan your summer job, if you’re graduating, you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, you know all of this sounds like luxury talk. And I guess my answer simply, it matters only to the extent that you think living in this country matters. Only to that extent.
If you think being in America is completely interchangeable with being any other place in the world, give or take learning a little bit of language and figuring out currency and all that, then maybe what I’m saying will not resonate with you. But if you believe there is something unique about the community of this country, there is something unique about the fact that we have this creed, a creed that we have not yet lived up to fully, but a creed at least that preaches a gospel of diversity, that preaches a gospel of equality, and that preaches a gospel of hybridization and churn and intermingling. If you believe that a country that preaches that gospel, through its politics, through its pop culture, through its music, through its art, through its song, through the tears that it sheds when fellow countrymen and women die, if you think there is something special and unique about the opportunities we have here, to encounter people every single day, who are not even remotely like us, in any way, if you think that’s special then what I’m saying ought to matter.
And it’s not just about being an American. It's about being a citizen of Geneva. It’s about being a member of the community of these Colleges here.
Why are you here? Why are we doing this tonight? Those are the questions I started out with tonight. It’s 8:30 p.m. here. The Yankees are playing the Angels on ESPN right now. I could be watching a really good baseball game. Many of you could be doing something else right now.
Why are we here? We’re here because each of us, whether or not we’re fully able to articulate it, whether or not we even fully know it, has some kind of yearning to take advantage of the opportunity that’s been afforded us. You may feel guilty: “I go to this amazing liberal arts college with this amazing wealth of ideas and interesting people who teach here and interesting people who come through here who Mark knows and brings and all this stuff and yet I only take advantage of a fraction of that." So maybe there’s some guilt in there and maybe that guilt empowered you to show up tonight, on what’s a otherwise a beautiful lovely evening outside.
But maybe it’s something deeper too. Maybe it’s something on some other level that you recognize that when you stop and think about not just who influenced you and how you pass it on but you actually stop and think about why you’re here on this earth, what your purpose is for existing, that the answer, whatever flavor it comes in, whatever calling and vocation, whatever terms you use to answer that question, that question is not answered in terms of isolation. There’s no such thing as a self-made woman or man. And so on some level you all recognize the idea of being at Hobart and William Smith is the idea of thrusting yourself out there, pushing yourself out there, when you’re feeling a little bit lazy, moving yourself out there to be in a space where you might encounter somebody unlike you, where you might encounter somebody who’s going to challenge you, and provoke you, and then make you see yourself with completely new eyes. That’s why we’re here. That’s the purpose of the city, that’s the purpose of the campus, and that’s the purpose of our country.
I just want to close tonight with one final reflection on the purposes of diversity itself. We were talking about this a little bit earlier tonight with a group before we came over to this room. One of the wonderful features of this time in our lives and this time in our country’s life is that we have pretty much all learned to celebrate diversity. OK, so if you look at Fortune 500 countries, if you look at any college or university worth its weight, if you look at churches, if you look at nonprofit organizations, people have learned over the last 15, 20 years, to speak a language of diversity, to speak a language of embracing multiculturalism. It’s just gotten woven into our official way of thinking. And that is incredible, wonderful progress. When you think about how short it was that by law, by state sanction, diversity was not celebrated but forbidden. It’s remarkable progress.
And yet, I think one of the dangers of our time, in fact, perhaps the greatest danger, when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity within the American context, is that we stop right there. Is that we stop with that celebration and we stop and we pat ourselves on the back for having overcome the entrenched structures of racism and discrimination that marked this country all the way up through the 50s and 60s.
Let me put it another way, and maybe a more provocative way. I don’t think we should be celebrating diversity, I really don’t. Because when you stop and think about it, you don’t celebrate the hammer, you celebrate the house that you build with the hammer. You don’t celebrate the paintbrush, or the paint set, you celebrate the images that you create with it. You don’t celebrate the instrument sitting inert on the stage, the saxophone, the keyboard, the drumset, whatever, sitting there. You celebrate what music gets invented by the use of those instruments. Diversity is our instrument. Diversity is the instrument of our destiny. It is not itself our destiny. Diversity alone promises nothing. Open the newspaper. Open the foreign, open the world news section of the newspaper. Diversity promises nothing. Having people of different kinds in the same space crowded together alone promises nothing. In fact, it probably tilts and predisposes people toward badness.
What we ought to be celebrating is not diversity. What we ought to be celebrating is what we do with diversity. The choices that we make every single day, not just to show up at conversations like this, which is a medium grade choice, but even smaller choices, about who you’re going to strike up a conversation with in those few minutes in a class before the professor starts talking. Who you’re going to sit down next to in the first place in that lecture hall. Who you're going to introduce yourself to the next time you go to a gathering of your affinity club. Whatever that club is, whatever your hobby is, or your passion or your cause is, who you’re going to introduce yourself to.
The choices you might make on a given day or a given afternoon to go hear speeches by somebody who you just know you’re going to hate, who you just know is going to make you feel sick to your stomach because they believe X fervently and you believe Y fervently. Those are the choices that you’re going to make. Anybody here who is already beyond their student years knows that it’s never as easy to make those choices as it is during the four years you’re on a campus like this. It’s never going to be this easy.
Because once you walk out of these halls and leave these yards, you won’t have time for those choices, and what I’m talking about tonight will sound like a luxury and what I’m describing tonight will recede into this far corner of your mind as yeah, something that mattered on a metaphysical level, but I’ve got work to do, I’ve got kids to feed, I’ve got something else to take care of. Your opportunity to develop those habits begins now.
So think about diversity. Celebrate it to an extent, but then think about all the choices you can make, in every dimension of your lives, as students, as teachers, as neighbors, as citizens, as friends and as members of this great community, all the choices you can make to do something with our diversity. And once you’ve come to those realizations, pass them on.
Thank you very much.
"What Diversity Can?and Can't?Teach Us," Eric Liu, Author and founder of the Guiding Lights Project
April 27, 2005