Diversity Center hosts John Quincy Adams

Maggie Waz

John Quincy Adams, a professor of educational and interdisciplinary studies at Western Illinois University, visited Lawrence Monday, Feb. 16. The two talks he gave revolved around the idea of diversity in the United States.
More specifically, the first talk titled “Tolerance – Respecting Diversity” focused on the makeup of America. Throughout the country’s history, America’s demographics have been changing rather drastically. The increase in population alone has contributed to a greater need for awareness of diversity.
His second talk, “Race – A Social or Biological Construct,” looked at race in America in broader terms. He asked attendees to write down the answers to questions such as “How many races are there?” and “How do you define race?” There was a large amount of variety in the answers given, which underlined Adams’ main assertion that the vocabulary of race is too complicated for people to have productive conversations about it. In stark terms, Adams showed members of the audience just how ill-equipped they are for this sort of discussion.
Mohammed Bey, acting assistant dean of students for multicultural affairs, attended both lectures and was particularly interested in the idea of creating a dialogue in which issues of diversity and race can be discussed, but he was also troubled by the idea of vocabulary in general. For one, he says that “you define yourself in your own terms,” which complicates matters of creating a vocabulary for discussions about diversity. The fear of these misunderstandings is what sometimes holds us back. Both Adams and Bey feel that this should not be the case.
Without a dialogue there is no hope for eliminating ignorance of cultures. Bey mentioned students from Africa and Jamaica who have grown up in much different cultures from that of African-Americans here. Through a dialogue between these various groups, different histories can be recognized and the gap can be narrowed.
When asked about Adams’ suggestion of “looking past the nomenclature [of race],” Bey agrees, but offers a warning of sorts: “It’s nice to dream of removing race, but it has been used as a tool for so long. It dictates emotions, our way of thinking, and the way we look at each other.” We may hope that one day race will be unimportant in terms of everyday life, but that can only be accomplished through a dialogue that encourages awareness.
In this sense, the second part to Adams’ suggestion, or solution, is equally important. He advocates that we not be “colorblind.” While he consistently refuses to answer the question asking for his race on questionnaires, preferring to refer to himself as simply “human,” he does not believe this means we forget what “color” we are. It’s significant but less important than we might think.
To illustrate this point, he related to his audience an anecdote about his experience with National Geographic’s Genographic Project. His students had a chance to participate in the project, which maps out a person’s genes and reveals a detailed list of his or her origins. Students were surprised to find that their origins did not always match their outward appearance, proving that there is perhaps too much weight attached to our perceived differences.