• Nia Alexander

A New Definition of Diverse

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • What diversity can be defined as

  • My experience in Richmond with diversity (including VCUarts)

  • Reasons why Qatar was inherently diverse

  • Diversity at VCUQ

  • The regular celebration of diversity

  • Political correctness in the U.S. vs. Qatar

  • Discrimination in the U.S. vs. Qatar

  • Considering the circumstances under which all the diversity in Qatar can be seen

  • The normalization of ethnic diversity in the U.S. vs Qatar

I know, a photo featuring the flags of every country is cliché as hell, but c’mon, it does communicate a point. This is at the Qatar National Library.

The use of the word “diverse” can inspire a variety of different visuals. Perhaps you imagine something akin to an elementary school poster, the kind that feature one student from “every” country holding hands around a globe. Perhaps you think about how many universities like to boast about their “diverse campus” when trying to attract new applicants, occasionally mutating the concept of diversity into a bit of a marketing ploy (especially when they forget to mention that as diverse as their campus is, it’s also a PWI). Perhaps you remember that diversity expands beyond race and national heritage, and you remember that it also includes things like gender, sexuality, and economic status. Or maybe you attribute the word “diverse” to a neighborhood where a vegan restaurant, a taco shop, and a Popeye’s stand side by side (and perhaps you’ve heard the word “diverse” used on either side of the gentrification discussion).

My point is that the concept of diversity can have a lot of different meanings influenced by a lot of different experiences and intentions. Growing up in Richmond (and the U.S. in general), conversations about diversity often wound up defining it in an oversimplified way that was literally black & white. For example, I grew up with that clear line between the “black neighborhoods” and the “white neighborhoods”, and this line was so sharp that I can still clearly remember all the white students from my five years-worth of elementary school classes (because there are only two of them to remember). When I switched schools for 5th grade after getting into a gifted program, I could suddenly count the number of black students in the whole school on two hands. Those schools were defined as lacking in diversity specifically because the white student/black student ratio was terribly off balance.

As I got older, the concept of diversity expanded, but simultaneously felt a bit stunted. Taking that hour-long bus ride to and from my black neighborhood to my predominantly white & Desi IB middle school introduced me to new nationalities, new cultural traditions, and even new religions, but it also severely highlighted the concept of “other” especially when it came to race & money. My definition of diversity had expanded, but it expanded through a lot of negativity, bullying, and “otherizing”.

Then my high school functioned as a local zone school for a predominantly black neighborhood, a predominantly white performing & visual arts magnet school, and a predominantly white & Desi IB school. There were a lot of different people from a lot of different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds—and it was the first time I was around people who were openly LGBT+—and yet I had never felt so segregated. The art magnet kids, the IB kids, and the zone kids rarely intermingled with each other, not at lunch, pep rallies, plays, sports games, and definitely not classes.

And in uni? Yes, VCU-Richmond was a PWI filled with mostly in-state students, but there was still a ton of diversity when it came to, well, everything you could think of. Just look through their list of 200+ student organizations and you’ll get a pretty decent idea of the motely crew of people the university attracts. The only problem is that the university was huge—kind of like the Roman Empire—and like the Roman Empire, you essentially get a bunch of people who all live beneath the same VCU Ram umbrella, but rarely come into contact with one another because we keep to our own corners of the empire. That said, the entirety of my VCU-Richmond experience didn’t go much further than the Fine Arts Building, where people of color and LGBT+ students were in the minority. There were other minorities, but those were the two that stood out . . . and those links down there will explain why. VCUarts—and most importantly the students—were having a hard time when it came to diversity as of 2018/2019.

Protesting outside VCU's Branch Cabell Library. Photo credit, Alexa Welch Edlund, Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Everything described in the links above happened after I came home from Qatar, and even though this incident was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back after years of unacknowledged discrimination in VCUarts (and even though I was used to the U.S. repeating this exact same mistake against people of color), it was wild to see it strike literally so close to home, especially after coming from the environment VCUQ provided.

What kind of environment am I talking about? I’m talking about the diverse atmosphere of VCUarts Qatar, and by extension Qatar itself.

Qatar was inherently diverse for three main reasons:

  • The population is roughly 90% expatriate.

  • The population is composed of people from nearly 100 different countries.

  • About 90% of the entire population—all 2.3 million of them—lived in Doha (which is where I spent most of my time, meaning I was in the midst of all that diversity)

About a quarter of all expatriates were Indian and the next highest demographics were from other parts of South and Southeast Asia (like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia). The rest of expatriates from the remaining 94-or-so countries were split up into itty bitty minorities.

What about the diversity at VCUQ?

Wait, here’s a direct copy from their website as of May 2019:

81 Faculty representing 18 nationalities 379 Students representing 36 nationalities 642 Alumni representing 50 nationalities 181 employees representing 31 nationalities

I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are (because other parts of their website gave me totally different statistics), but no matter what, the numbers above aren’t too far off for any given year. I’m sure you get the picture: VCUQ is a small university with a lot variety when it comes to its students & faculty, like a Twinkie stuffed with the sweetness of ethnic diversity.

For the past few years, including the semester I was there, the student population at VCUQ has lingered between 50%-60% Qatari, with the remaining being expatriate (from a mix of those 35 other countries). When it comes to diversity, though, there are two more things I’d like to point out, the things that stood out to me the most:

  • The student body was at least 70% female, if not higher.

  • There were barely any black people.

So, what’s up with that?

Well, interestingly, when it came to the population of the country, only 25% of Qatar’s residents were female. When it came to the population of Education City, though, the campus as a whole hosted mostly female students. There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is because the country began a big initiative to educate women starting in the 1970s and the effects of that still linger (in the best way possible). A social aspect, though, is that single Qatari women are encouraged to stay close to home (in contrast to single men, who often study in countries outside Qatar). There’s also the fact that VCUarts Qatar didn’t start accepting men into their programs until 2007/2008—about ten years after the university opened—so perhaps there’s just a slow crawl attracting men to the program. It could also be because in a lot of countries, America included, art programs tend to be predominantly female, despite the traditional dominance of men in the fine art world (that whole topic warrants a discussion on its own though, I’d say).

And when it comes to black people, well, if we add up all the black people of every nationality in Qatar, that’s still a very small minority. Thus, it technically made proportional sense for there to only be a handful of black students at VCUQ because, after all, when you’ve barely got black people in the country of 2.6 million, you aren’t bound to find but so many in a school of 400. I’m near certain I could count the number of black students & faculty at VCUQ on two hands, and in our graduating class, there were only two black students . . . and I was one of them. I’m not saying this was a problem—it’s not like VCUQ was being discriminatory with their students—this was just how the demographics panned out.

Another thing that added to the diversity was the regular celebration of different cultures

The huge outdoor majlis and stage in Education City during (what I believe was) the International Food Festival. I’m not sure what exactly this event was because I stumbled upon it by accident, but it had lots of free food, traditional dances performed by students from different countries, and a student fashion show showcasing cultural dress.

I was familiar with cultural events hosted by a variety of student organizations, VCU’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, and a few hosted by the City of Richmond, but VCUQ and Qatar Foundation took it to a whole new level. The cultural celebrations hosted by Qatar Foundation and each individual university could include any combination of music, food, dancing, singing, fashion, and fun facts (usually accompanied by culture-related swag). Sometimes these events focused on one culture and sometimes they focused on a lot of cultures, but it always felt sincere. It didn’t feel gimmicky or forced, like some “The Man” entity was trying to convince the public they were hip to the idea of diversity, it felt like QF and the universities were honestly embracing the ethnic diversity found amongst their student body (and to a larger extent, the country as whole, since most of these events were free and open to the public).

Do you remember when I mentioned “culture related swag”? At another intercultural event in Education City, there were booths lined up and each booth was hosted by students from different countries. Each booth offered (super easy) mini games, and if you won the game, you’d get a prize. This is what I won from the USA booth. The USA mini game was all about the U.S. born pop culture that has spread around the world.

One of the biggest cultural events that VCUQ hosted was Desi Night, an annual event that includes food and performances celebrating people from South Asia (i.e. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and a few others). What I thought was amazing was the turnout: Everyone came. It wasn’t just teachers or SGA or exclusively Desi people (which is sometimes how VCU-Richmond events turn out), it was a packed house, filled with students, teachers, custodians & housekeepers, and alumni (from more schools than just VCUQ).

And about political correctness

Compared to folks in the U.S., all the people in Qatar from all those different backgrounds seemed to care a bit less about political correctness and whether an innocent statement would be considered offensive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s 100% undeniably good to not insult others by using pejoratives & derogatory terms, to use proper pronouns when requested, to not reference someone else’s identity as an insult to others (like calling something “gay” when you really mean “bad”), and to not use someone’s identity as a costume or mascot (which the U.S. is still having an surprisingly hard time with as of 2019).

However, people in the U.S. can sometimes be a bit hostile when it comes to political correctness. I’ve seen plenty of people attack others who say something politically incorrect without actually educating them about why what they said was disrespectful. When that happens, the concept of political correctness gets lost or flipped around, often becoming something that people roll their eyes at. And on the flip side, some people start to get paranoid and tiptoe around saying basic statements because they worry it will somehow be considered offensive (a case of referring to “the generational poverty amongst black people” as “generational poverty amongst people of color”). It’s true that all black people are “people of color”, but not all “people of color” are black. Suddenly whatever point they were trying to make becomes indirect and ultimately takes power away from the issue they were trying to bring to people’s attention simply because they weren’t saying what they meant.

In Qatar, though, people took political correctness a little less serious in that people tended to say exactly what they meant. When describing someone, people would say things like “the Indian girl with the long hair” or “the black guy with the round head” and everyone would know they weren’t being dismissive, presumptuous, or disrespectful, they were being literal. Or when a non-black person complimented a black person on something like their (natural) hair being “pretty” or their (melanin rich) skin being “clear”, the black person would know that they weren’t the recipient of underhanded racial ignorance, they were the recipient of face value compliments. Or how about someone getting a massage tells their masseuse, who just so happens to be Filipino, that they’ve got “magic hands”; they weren’t making some insensitive comment about Asians working in beauty shops, they were genuinely complimenting their skill and expressing appreciation.

Those were the kinds of situations I’ve seen boil over all-too-easily at home in the U.S., but in Qatar people seemed to be better attuned to when ignorance or ill-intent was truly being thrown at them, which meant they could recognize innocent situations that didn’t require misguided and potentially hostile “political correcting”.

Listen I could go on for a good long while about the sorts of innocent encounters I’ve seen people in the U.S. get touchy about, and that’s the exact reason why Qatar was so freeing. If you did or said something wrong, people would correct you (usually without hostility), if they did or said something wrong, you were free to correct them, and if someone truly meant to insult you—even underhandedly—you’d be able to tell, fam. After all, insults are meant to be noticed.

Oh! But while I’m here talking about political correctness, this feels like a good time to bring up another hostile moment in the U.S. between someone being accused of cultural appropriation and an accuser who clearly did not understand the definition of cultural appropriation. I won’t go into details, but it involved a black man wearing a dashiki. You see, the hostile accuser was trying to honorably defend an idea that they didn’t fully understand, all in the name of being sensitive to a culture outside their own. Perhaps their heart was in the right place, but their brain? Not so much. I feel like the concept of cultural appropriation is a branch on the political correctness tree, so here’s a link to a very simple Bustle article if you need a refresher.

All that said, though Qatar wasn’t a perfect paradise lacking in discrimination

Discrimination against race, religion, gender, sexuality, economic status, and nationality were all found in Qatar to varying degrees alongside their embracement of diversity. The U.S. had a lot of those problems too, but marginalized groups in the U.S. seemed to more often be subjected to things like microaggressions, institutionalized racism, rights like “stand your ground”, and laws that just so happen to make certain things (like voting) more difficult for certain people (like minorities), as opposed to blatant acts of discrimination like Jim Crow laws or attacks on places of worship (though this one keeps popping up increasingly often). What I mean is that the U.S. has a ton of discrimination, but in contrast to our historical ways of expressing it, our contemporary ways manifest themselves in subtler, sneakier, more underhanded ways full of excuses and contradictions.

Discrimination in Qatar, however, sometimes seemed a bit more . . . blatant. No, no one was forming ill-intentioned mobs or driving cars into crowds of protesters or defacing religious buildings, but there were some discriminatory things that Qatar either had written into the law or seemed to just let slide. For example, legalities regarding LGBT+ topics had clear & immovable lines, women’s rights seemed to waver the deeper one dived into it, and things like letting an Egyptian show that still does blackface stream in a country where plenty of other haram shows didn’t stream is what I meant by letting some things slide.

So, when it came to diversity, it sometimes felt like when Qatar was awesome they were explosively awesome, and when they dropped the ball they dropped it hard and seemingly deliberately. Less nuance, less subtleties, less sneaking around . . . Qatar seemed to mean what they said and say what they meant, for both better and for worse.

You’ve also got to consider where you’re seeing all this diversity

In the spirit of visual metaphors, grocery stores in Qatar could be a pretty diverse place. Onions & mushroom cream, cuttlefish in oil, and bruschetta with olives to your left, while Coca-Cola, sheep yoghurt, and ketchup Pringles were to your right. My point is that standing in a grocery store meant seeing a huge variety of food in one place and having it be presented to you in the same way, on the same playing field. Seeing diversity in Qatar as a whole, however, wasn’t quite like that.

The population of Doha was roughly 8x larger than the population of Richmond in 2018. Thing is, Richmond was about 50% African American, 40% white American, and 10% everyone else, whereas Doha was filled with a diverse crew of people from nearly 100 different countries. This means that Doha was statistically more racially diverse, but here’s the thing: You’ve got to consider the circumstances under which you are being exposed to all this diversity.

For example, I spent most of my time in Education City, a very nationally, racially, and religiously diverse place when it came to students and faculty, the people I encountered the most. I was in an ethnically diverse college campus bubble, similar to my experience on the VCU-Richmond campus, but like VCU-Richmond, the diversity found on a college campus doesn’t necessarily reflect the demographics of the city as a whole.

So, even though the student population in Education City was predominantly female, the overall population of Doha was predominantly male. And do you remember when I mentioned VCUQ hosted students from 36 countries? I was introduced to all that diversity because I was also a student. We were all on the same playing field, all subjected to the same education, expectations, and experiences because we were students. Doha as a whole, however, was quite different than a college campus and exhibited some major differences regarding the circumstances in which I saw its diversity, the people from those 100-ish countries. Most of the Desi, African, and Southeast Asian populations in Doha were blue & pink-collar workers: Taxi drivers, construction workers, custodians, car washers, bathroom attendants, housekeepers, waiters, cashiers, etc. Meanwhile, people who were Arab, Turkish, American, or European tended to have the white-collar jobs; they were teachers, office assistants, directors, executives, designers, accountants, doctors, and so on.

Do you see what I mean? Even though Qatar was incredibly diverse, and even though you’ll undoubtedly see lots of people from lots of different backgrounds, you’ve got to consider the roles in which you are seeing these people. After all, something as simple as the jobs in which you see certain demographics performing adds more layers to the conversation about diversity because you can’t help but start connecting dots between things like race, nationality, and economic status in regard to other things like employment and education. To top it off, you’ve also got things like gender and sexuality, which have very different histories and contemporary considerations in Qatar compared to the U.S.—or even just VCU-Richmond compared to VCUQ—which also effects what diversity in any given area truly looks like.

I know, all those things are part of a big, lengthy, nuanced conversation that we won’t dive too deep into it right now. However, we do dive deeper into some of these things in the posts Being a Woman in Qatar and Peace in the Middle East (Safety Part II), as well as the posts about being black & American in Qatar, migrant workers, and the culture shock that came along with how economically well off people in the country were.

Overall, though, compared to the U.S. ethnic diversity in Qatar felt normalized

Poppadoms and Pringles. That counts as diversity, right? American and Indian cuisine, all stuffed in stackable cans? Humor me, you guys.

Considering the diversity of a college campus, the small size of Education City (and the even smaller size of VCUQ) made encountering cultures other than my own unavoidable. What I thought was great, though, was that seeing all that diversity wasn’t reliant upon big, overt celebrations like Desi Night or the International Food Festival, it was also found in the little and debatably boring aspects of life. Things like walking down the hallway and casually overhearing someone switching between English and Urdu as they talked on the phone, or listening to the teacher do roll call on the first day of school and hearing names in Arabic, English, Punjabi, Yoruba, and Portuguese (and actually having everyone put forth the effort to pronounce those names correctly). This stuff was cool to witness because in the U.S., no matter how often we claim the whole “melting pot” shtick, residents of non-white backgrounds always wind up being otherized. In Qatar, however, that feeling of otherization was diminished because (to an extent) it felt like everyone was “other”, essentially making “other” the norm.

Race, religion, gender, sexuality . . . in the U.S. (as of 2019) the embracement of diversity was kind of a shit show and attempts to share that diversity with others occasionally felt oversimplified, ingenuine, or forced, which ultimately managed to highlight a marginalized group’s “otherness” without truly embracing them. However, expressions of diversity in Qatar weren’t like that at all, which was incredibly interesting because Qatar was the most patriotic country I had ever visited. It was doubly cool to see a country that took a lot of pride in its own cultural identity, but was also comfortable with others expressing theirs.

Yeah, there was discrimination in there too, both subtle social cues (like the abundance of skin lightening creams and the prevalent straightening of curly hair) and some legal things (like LBGT+ and women’s rights), but I had the luck of being introduced to the good parts of Qatar’s embrace of ethnic diversity before I learned of the discriminatory stuff. Essentially, I saw Qatar’s good side first, and it felt like their good side was truly good; I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before; it was refreshing and inspiring, it made me reflect, and it provided me some unexpected comfort that my home country had never offered.

About the Creator

Nia Alexander Campbell is an artist and writer from Richmond, Virginia. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in...

 

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© 2020 by Black Girls Abroad

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