In 2000, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UW), Diallo Shabazz was my student. He was a senior. At the very beginning of his Frosh year, someone snapped this picture:
From that point forward, Diallo was featured in UW promotional materials again and again. He became accustomed to seeing that smile everywhere. Because diversity has become such a popular, even trendy thing for a college to have, many students of color find themselves used as representatives of their colleges disproportionately.
But Shabazz’s story takes a fascinating turn. At the end of his senior year he paged through the next year’s application and didn’t see himself. Hmmm. Then, someone asked if he saw himself on the cover. And he looked and didn’t see it and then he did. Do you?
That’s Diallo behind the excited girl on the left. Except Diallo had never been to a UW football game. You might recognize his face, transposed, from the original picture. Indeed, someone at UW had photoshopped Diallo into the image below in order to give the impression that attendance at the game was more diverse than it was. No Diallo:
In that year 100,000 admission booklets went out with his face. More insidiously, 100,000 admission booklets went out using his face to give the illusion of diversity at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Diallo sued. He didn’t ask for a settlement. He said that he wanted a “budgetary apology.” He asked that, in compensation, the University put aside money for actual recruitment of minority students. He won. Ten million dollars was earmarked for diversity initiatives across the UW system. The irony in the whole thing is that UW requested photos of Shabazz shaking administrators’ hands in reconciliation (i.e., photographic proof that everything was just fine). Oh, and also, the Governor vetoed part of the earmark and many initiatives wore off with turnover.
What does this teach us?
First, notice that we have a commodification of diversity. It is considered useful for selling an institution.
Second, if real diversity isn’t possible, cosmetic diversity will do.
Third, Shabazz himself was dismissed even as his image was used over and over. Not only did they own the rights to his image and include him in many materials without the requirement that they ask or inform him, they literally took his image, cut it up, and used it to create a false picture. When Shabazz complained, they first tried to blow him off. So he wasn’t important to them, even as what he represented clearly was.
This suggests, fourth, that there was a real lack of a substantive dialog about and investment in race and diversity on the campus. Talk: difficult. Recruitment of minorities to a mostly white campus: tricky. Addressing the systematic educational underinvestment in minorities prior to arriving at UW: expensive. Retaining minorities in that environment: challenging. Photoshop: easy.
Macon D., at Stuff White People Do, featured a similar situation in which Toronto’s Fun Guide (badly) photoshopped a black man onto their cover because their “goal was to depict the diversity of Toronto and its residents” (story here) (images also sent in by fds and Michael G.):
All of this puts into some perspective the recent Microsoft scandal that Jon S. and Dmitriy T. M. asked us to blog about. If you were in the U.S. you would see the first image on the Microsoft webpage (with, as far as we know, real minorities) and, if you were in Poland, you would have seen the second image (with the black man replaced by a white man):
NEW! (Nov ’09):
Arturo Garcia pointed out that U.S. advertising for Couples Retreat included a black couple, but the advertising in the U.K. did not.
The willingness to play with the presence of minorities–both by photoshopping them in and out–suggests that companies are making strategic, not ethical, decisions about what kind of public face (forgive the pun) to put on. All of this avoids any real engagement with diversity itself. This is probably largely because diversity is a minefield. It’s incredibly difficult to even figure out how to define it, let alone how to build it, or how to manage it once you have it (something that my current institution struggles with). And yet, these are the things that we must do. Otherwise all of these strategic moves, both towards and away from minorities, are suspect.
NEW! In our comments, Jackie and Jasmine drew our attention to another example. This is from the University of Texas, Arlington:
See also our series on how people of color are included in advertising aimed primarily at white people, starting here.
If you’re really interested in these ideas, you might want to read MultiCultClassics, a blog specializing in how companies try to recruit minorities and present themselves as diverse institutions.
NEW! (Feb. ’10): Kaitlin M. let us know about a post at Talking Points Memo that shows how the American Petroleum Institute changed a stock photo (first image below) to look more racially diverse when they included it in a pamphlet about the benefits of the oil industry:
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.