Diversity in the Humanities: It Can’t Just be a Selling Point

I identify, more than anything else, as a writer. I don’t write too often, and I share my writing even less, but the way I’ve come to understand myself as a person and the people around me has been, and continues to be, through literature. Since I was young, books were my best friends, my most understanding and convincing mentors, and my little hot air balloon basket where I could climb in to explore life outside of an overwhelmingly dull reality. 

As a kid, I wasn’t picky. Anywhere would do, anyone would do. It didn’t matter if I lived vicariously through Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, it all felt the same to me. Part of that is the beauty of literature: being able to lose yourself in someone else’s joy and pain instead of prioritizing your own. But as I grew older, and subconsciously continued to learn from stories, the literature I read both at home and in school stunted my growth in a way I wouldn’t notice for years. 

I was born in Pakistan, but I was taken to America with my older brothers and mother as a baby. It’s cliché to say that people can never really forget where they came from, that blood and history can never be buried. But America was just too far for my mother country’s arms to reach me. In my formative years, I felt the ghost of its touch but never its embrace. 

When I was a child, I had experienced a self-loathing that is tragically common in young girls of color (especially darker skinned girls). I hated everything not American about me. I thought, in my childish sense of injustice, that it was cruel for me to be the only girl in my class who couldn’t go to sleepovers, couldn’t wear shorts, and couldn’t be light-skinned and beautiful. 

In retrospect, my complaints seemed laughable; I was just a bratty child who had discipline problems. However, I failed to notice that although my dramatic indignance was characteristic of childhood, the nature of my complaints was rooted in something a bit too existential and cross-cultural for me to learn at Hogwarts. 

Books, harry potter, nescafe cup, lights Photo by Sadiq Nafee from Unsplash

Unlike most children who loved to read, I grew up to love literature even in highschool. I had a superiority complex because of my refusal to use SparkNotes and became a bit of an insufferable, modern beatnik. Naturally, I kissed up to my English teachers and devoured the texts that are typical in an American English curriculum: The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and even Moby Dick.

I am all too grateful for my experience of reading these classics, especially for the amazing lessons that my teachers instilled in me. Through these books, I had the privilege of not only learning the technical skills of getting more out of art, but also having real discussions with people I wouldn’t otherwise talk to about the world we live in, and our fears about it. No other subject in school gave me that outlet. However, as these books became the focal point of refuge and perspective for my class, it’s important to acknowledge their limitations. 

All the aforementioned books (and several others usually included on traditional reading lists) focus on a very American, Christian perspective. The last two do have lead characters that are people of color (Jim, Queequeg) but the narration itself draws from a history that calls attention to how different these characters are. Huck Finn does harbor love for Jim, as does Ishamel for Queequeg, but undoubtedly, they are “the others” in their respective worlds. Their love is positioned as a rebellious, almost impossible counter against a larger cultural norm. 

The same goes for the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafi that I read in my sophomore year of high school. Like the relationships between Jim and Huck, Queequeg and Ishamel, the two texts were simply a hopeful speck of perspective in a life-long education that made me understand myself fully as an American. The norm was already established, and I felt that the threshold of my home divided my world so that my intellectual and emotional understandings were strictly western, while the food I ate and the people I loved as a family were composed of something I couldn’t make sense of. 

If you asked me in high school or in my first semester of college, I would say that I was definitely more American than Pakistani. Hoping to explore the history of the culture I felt connected to, I went into Adelphi as an English Major with ambitions to eventually learn Latin and Greek. 

I am certainly not the first person to underscore the importance of a diversified curriculum in schools and universities. I nominally supported it, as it seemed to be in accordance with the general narrative of diversity I’ve been hearing for practically all my young adult life. But, it wasn’t until this past summer when I read Kite Runner that I really felt it, that I understood how personal it was. 

I had never read a book by a Muslim author before that wasn’t just a narration of their adjustment into America. Doubtless, it’s intriguing and naturally something I could somewhat relate to, but to me, it always called attention to the foreignness of our existence.

But Hosseini, gave me the opportunity to read in a comfortable way. The book doesn’t pose Afghan or Muslim culture as a shy exemption from the default narratives that dominate English literature. It just tells a story: no apologies, no embarrassment, no agenda. I never expected to feel so relieved seeing words and cultural staples that I recognized from home. They suddenly blossomed in my mind. The prayers I memorized in Islamic preschool were now being recited by Amir when his father is in danger. My mother’s lectures on dignity and honor were the ones that also annoyed Laila in Hosseini’s sophomore novel: A Thousand Splendid Suns. It was like I didn’t realize that I was only 50% of a person until I became 51% of a person. 

picking a book Photo by Christin Hume from Unsplash

Sometimes, this chase for diversity in literature is tainted by instruction that is too self aware. POC perspectives are tokenized to be representative of an entire group of people, with a specific mold that it is impossible to sever the individual from. In Quicksand by Nella Larson, the main character, Helga, describes this feeling “as if she were shut up, boxed up, with hundreds of her race, closed up with that something in the racial character which had always been to her, inexplicable, alien.” Tokenizing a minority experience just further alienates and vindicates people of color into conforming into a safe image that comforts those unfamiliar with their culture. They are treated as empty vessels, filled with a diluted, non-threatening mixture of identity that drowns out any personal nuances or dissent. 

With that said, I feel like it’s appropriate to emphasize that I certainly do not expect all students of color to relate to my experiences. I just mean to convey my individual journey, and my hopes for its future. 

I’ve always appreciated the intent of a humanities education: to introduce students of any field to the history and culture they draw from so that they could understand where their beliefs  come from and face them confidently. In the book The God of Small Things, the author Arudhati Roy explains how a family of Indian anglophiles are “trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps because their footprints had been swept away.” The purpose of a diversified curriculum then, means that students who curate their identities from a myriad of cultures can find those footprints again, and stare into the face of whatever they are led to. 

A diversified curriculum is not specific to just a minority of students, but is especially vital during polarizing times. It’s a privilege to feel merged with your surrounding culture, like the water we swim in, but it can also be a dangerous vulnerability. We are living in a manipulative world, and there are people trying to exploit gaps in knowledge by filling those vacancies with fear. We hear ghost stories of treacherous people across seas and deserts with supposedly menacing views and intentions. But even if the words of the prayers or lectures are foreign, understanding the universal feelings of desperation and annoyance behind them will encourage educated students to challenge the hate. If there is one thing I learned from literature it’s that bravery like that comes from a journey, and personally, I don’t think there’s any vehicle better than a book.