The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

MIT Needs a Diversity GIR

Aisha Stroman & Marlon Francis
May 9, 2001

In response to recent requests for a diversity general institute requirement (GIR), many people may ask, “Why is it necessary? After all, you can’t teach someone an appreciation for diversity.” It's not necessarily about “teaching” diversity but teaching people about other cultures and dispelling myths so that one can begin to appreciate another culture. There is no way you can force someone to appreciate diversity, not by living together, not through a class or an activity. However, one reason people don't appreciate living in a multicultural environment, or don't feel as if they are a part of one, is because they know very little about other cultures. Some of this is by choice, but some of it is just because people are afraid to leave their comfort zones. They are afraid to be the only Black person at a Korean event, or the only person of any race/culture in a place that is not familiar and/or comfortable to them. This is where a diversity class can play an important role.

A diversity class will allow students of different races and cultures to meet and speak with one another and to address their fears, misconceptions, preconceptions, and perceptions of persons of diverse backgrounds. With these hurdles out of the way, people will be more likely to accept those of other cultures into their circle of friends. More interactions like this will begin to break down the barriers and address the fears of those who say they would like to meet people of other backgrounds but cannot.

It’s unfortunate that we are calling it a "diversity class." It should be an experience, although in a classroom environment, that introduces people to other cultures on this campus and beyond. Possibly, something like Dr. Clarence William's "Bridging the Cultural Divide." We should use the “class” to help people talk about and work through the stereotypes, misunderstanding, and just plain ignorance that we all have in some capacity.

We never talk about those kinds of things, and when we do, because it's optional, we usually end up preaching to the choir. We hold conversations with people who are already concerned about diversity and multiculturalism. A class can give people an opportunity to talk and raise awareness among those who don't know -- maybe even cause people who don't to begin to care? A little knowledge can go a long way.

Moya won't work because you don't have to go to Moya, same with Bufa Bufa. Furthermore, these don’t extend the interactions beyond a brief period of time, but a mandatory class at least forces people to talk about and think about these issues. And it's more likely that people will go out and meet other folks on this campus and participate in other cultural events that are outside of their “comfort zones” since they may feel like they know more about the culture and less intimidated and lessalienated. In addition, they are offered a chance to educate others on their own culture.

To avoid the pitfalls from other universities, the class should be run like a seminar, in a way that touches on a lot of different cultures, not just concentrating on one. If a student wants to learn more about a particular one, that is where the proposed Ethnic Studies program can help. And a Multicultural Center would be the perfect place for housing such a program in addition to group space and offices of many of the culturally related organizations on campus.

So, you ask, “Why do we need a diversity GIR?” For the same reason the Institute has a swimming requirement, to teach the future scientific, engineering, technical, and political leaders of our world to successfully navigate the sea of diversity that is today’s global society.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.