Flash After the Diversity Panel
Had we been diverse enough? Had we changed hearts, minds, and souls? Had we been . . . truthful?
After the diversity panel, we went to IHOP because where else were we supposed to go?
The university gave us twenty-dollar vouchers for our labor. We studied the menu carefully, calculating for tax and tip because we were not about to pay a single cent at an IHOP located under a freeway overpass.
Still, we feigned gratitude to trick ourselves into it. We tilted our heads and murmured without joy, “Breakfast? On a Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.? How naughty.”
As we contemplated our pancakes, bacon, and sunny-side-up eggs, we chewed over the same questions: Had we been diverse enough? Or on the contrary, too diverse? (In certain rooms, one could always be too diverse.) Had we been educational? Overconfrontational? Underconfrontational? Had our performance been convincing? Had we changed hearts, minds, and souls? Had we been . . . truthful?
At this, we crammed more toast into our mouths because we were in no condition to self-reflect, not in an IHOP on a Wednesday after 6:00 p.m. What would the ancestors think—one of us attempted, but another one of us stepped on her foot to zip the thought shut.
In the bathroom, the well-meaning moderator had cornered us by the paper towel dispenser and waxed on at length about her adopted daughter, going so far as to parade photos across her phone. She sought our approval and, suffocating from the cloying scent of her good intentions, we granted it. The concession seemed a betrayal—to ourselves or the adopted daughter, we weren’t sure. Both?
Outside the bathroom, the CEO of the university had asked for a photo and because we did not say no, he heard yes. His half-cooked hamburger patty of a hand loitered on our hips, yet we didn’t move an inch, did we? No, because we were thinking about that fat twenty-dollar voucher in his pocket and we were hungry. Talking about diversity in certain rooms always left us very, very hungry.
But now that our stomachs were full, our minds were clear.
“Why did I smile so hard—”
“I shouldn’t have said—”
“Was it a mistake to come—”
“My name was misspelled—”
“They looked so happy with themselves—”
“I saw someone patting herself on the back—”
During the diversity panel, we zoned out a couple times, staring out into the colorless crowd, agonizing over the way we’d inflected white as if to soften it. Before the diversity panel, we had not thought about diversity at all, at least not the way the university thought about it, with numbers, pie charts, and peer-reviewed studies. To tell the truth, discussing diversity when you yourself were considered diverse was—
In the bathroom, the ceramic bowl greeted us in the nick of time: clean and empathetic.
Back in the safety of our IHOP booth, we manufactured perfect retorts, hours late. We complained to each other, but the happiness it sparked was fleeting and flat, a soda devoid of carbonation. We admitted that yes, the diversity panel had been a little fun—at least, during the five minutes we made the well-meaning moderator cry on stage—but we also admitted that yes, we felt a little bad about it.
We joked that, after the diversity panel, nothing would change. But the joke didn’t land and we didn’t laugh.
At sunset, the IHOP glazed over like a melting popsicle. Sunsets, especially cinematic sunsets under freeway overpasses, deluded us into thinking we were the protagonist in the second half of a movie’s third act. They gave us big ideas we had no business having. They swerved one direction, and that direction spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Before the diversity panel, we had not thought about diversity at all, at least not the way the university thought about it, with numbers, pie charts, and peer-reviewed studies.
We leapt onto the table, offending our half-eaten pancakes, bacon, and sunny-side-up eggs. “We need to organize!” we shouted. We needed picket signs and easy-to-remember slogans. Rise up! Overthrow!
The line cooks wandered out to listen, thinking an impromptu union meeting had begun. We flailed our arms at them and said, urgently, “We must ban all diversity panels because the diversity panel will henceforth become the CEO of the university!” to which they rolled their eyes and left.
In their absence stood our server, her hands on her hips, her voice inflated with a mother’s fury. “Excuse me, ma’am? MA’AM? You need to come down from there. NOW.”
And that was when I looked around and remembered—there would be no overthrowing or abolishing. No picketing or rhythmic chanting.
Because I was the diversity panel. And I couldn’t very well organize on my own.
“I’m sorry, I must have drank too much coffee,” I laughed, folding back into a compact, apologetic mold.
Her gaze scraped me up and down like a spatula. “Well, I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, but in this country, we have a strict ‘No Shoes on the Table’ policy.” She cocked her head. “You’re with the Chinese tour group that came by earlier, aren’t you? Say, is it true that in China—”
A man in the next booth answered her. “You’re wrong. When I visited Hong Kong last summer—”
Another man interrupted him. “No, I read a newspaper article saying—”
I closed my eyes. When I opened them, everyone in the IHOP stared up at me, unblinking as infants, smiles friendly and impatient, waiting for me to speak on behalf of 1.39 billion people.
“Well, is it true?”
I climbed down from the table, placed my voucher on top of a menu, and stopped myself from saying thank you. The door exhaled behind me with an anticlimactic puff.
Outside, the sky was pitch black and the passing airplanes were bright blips. I walked back the way I’d come, feeling hungry and foolish, kicking feebly at the trash on the street. Because how could I have forgotten? It made no difference if I was at a for-profit university or a multinational pancake-house chain.
I was the diversity panel—all the time.