Setting a Higher Bar for Multicultural Inclusion in Higher Education

May 20, 2020

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By Maria Madison

The National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan interviewed a number of academic diversity officers (ADOs) to learn more about how they view their role. Results from this study were published last fall. In this new blog series, ADOs and other senior leaders discuss the role, the challenges ADOs face, and the opportunities these positions bring to college and university campuses.

At the end of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, author Brittney Cooper writes, “May you have joy, May you have gut-busting belly laughter, every day. May you ask more and better questions, May your rage be a force for good. You got this. We got this.” What better way to summarize the work of an equity, inclusion, and diversity (EID) officer in higher education than by embracing Cooper’s spirit? How can our rage be a force for good?

Higher education needs to transform itself to address recent demographic changes. Nearly half the members of generation Z are racial or ethnic minorities. Household income inequality is more pronounced within “intersectionalities,” including racial, ethnic, LGBTQIA, and disability groups. These groups are experiencing higher rates of health concerns (including vastly greater mortality rates from COVID-19), differential graduation rates, and debt.

How can we overcome our differences to work toward equitable student graduation and employment rates?

We: Who is the “we” in “We got this?”

My goal as an EID officer is to help a community move from self-awareness to self-care and “community caring.” In this context, awareness means confronting our own racist and discriminatory ideas, reducing bias, and equipping people with tools for responding to bias. It also involves building trust and authentic relationships and communication toward successful educational outcomes. That’s a mouthful, akin to a Sisyphean task that no single individual can, nor should accomplish alone. We must use evidence-based best practices, where institutions and leaders share in self-reflection, learning and owning our own distorted beliefs, and moving toward successful outcomes for everyone, particularly those traditionally left behind.

The media and our own behavior toward each other should incite anger. We often read about, hear of, and experience racist and discriminatory ideas inspired by social media distortions, media reports, climate survey results, course evaluation narratives, and a host of other sources. To turn anger into a force for good, we must collect and share the stories of microaggressions, for example. To address anger, we must listen to the voices telling of daily microinvalidations. To respond, we must train our community on bias reduction strategies, such as perspective taking, stereotype replacement, committing to credentials, and expanding experiences and environments. We must transform toward our best selves, seeing all as equals.

Them (students): stress and structural racism

In their book The Inner Level, Wilkinson and Pickett quote Alexis de Tocqueville as stating, “What stands out in the record of human callousness and cruelty is the ease with which we can disregard the suffering of any Group we regard as inferior, just as we tend to portray as inferior any group we are opposed to.” As portions of the population gain in comforts, they are increasingly separated from the lived experiences and history of others. That divide contributes to increasingly entrenched views of the abilities of Black and brown folks, for example.

These beliefs bleed into the classroom, manifesting themselves as differential treatment or expectations of students. Whether intentional or unintentional, the results can have real physical and socioemotional impacts on students, which in turn can discourage class participation. Discrimination incites stress. Stress hormones impede our ability to function (see Kessler, McKesson, and Williams 1999, or Nancy Krieger’s Ecosocial Theory, and Arline Geronimus’s “weathering” hypothesis, for example). To promote equitable education, we must reduce stress placed on students. Imagine if classrooms incorporated mindfulness strategies into the daily routine and how this could benefit students. We must view students as equals—equally capable, equally talented, equally able to co-create an exceptional learning experience by contributing their full individual personalities to learning, for the entire classroom. We must neither ask them to assimilate, nor acquiesce to teacher cultural naiveté. Instead, teachers should ask more and better questions. We must transform toward our best selves, seeing all as equals.

Us: more barriers to progress

It is up to us to break barriers to educational success. To do this we have to recognize and include the multiple identities of our students. We must understand our society is diverse, and our blindspots compound inequity. Generation Z, for example, “is the most diverse generation ever.” These individuals declare they aren’t about binaries and that they don’t fit into a Census box. Despite adversity, many are resilient and strong, particularly when validated or in supportive environments.

Hate speech can be subtle or overt, implicit and explicit, subverting inclusion and belonging 

Hate speech plays an impactful role in the creation of non-inclusive spaces. Work by the Anti-Defamation League shows that there is a rapidly increasing presence and visibility of white supremacy on college campuses. The hateful propaganda spread by these groups often attacks individuals from the Jewish, Black, Muslim, non-white immigrant, and gender and sexually marginalized communities.

Within the campus community, the lack of diversity and exposure to other populations among our faculty, staff, and researchers creates an environment fraught with overwhelming implicit biases. Supervisors continuously hire similarly appearing or credentialed colleagues, representing an affinity bias. This results in little to no knowledge of the needs and intellectual strengths of a more pluralistic community. Even contemporary scholars and teachers researching and documenting diversity can be among the worst offenders, unaware of their own Blindspots. I have been asked by such researchers, “Won’t our funders be angry if we hire for diversity, because it will threaten the quality of our work?” It is hard to forget the words from the head of a department: “I don’t use articles from Blacks because they don’t like to use statistics.”

Our hubris: The impact of our lack of cultural humility

Author and researcher Dorothy Roberts describes that “in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same.” In her work Fatal Invention, she states that “race is not a biological category that naturally produces health disparities because of genetic differences. Race is a political category that has staggering biological consequences because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health.” The barriers can seem to be how we understand our similarities and differences. Genetically we are more alike than different, but socio-politically and economically, as well as fundamentally philosophically, we have blindspots with deleterious results.

Our action and inaction impact the disparity gap

Enough is known for action. Action is needed for a sustained impactful change: for institutional, structural, psychological, and behavioral change in how predominantly white institutions recruit (or not) and retain (or not) marginalized populations. In my own work, I adopt an evidence-based approach. My approach uses theory from global researchers and meta-analyses. Step one in addressing our biases is self-awareness, assessing our implicit beliefs, everyday discrimination, and attitudes towards others through validated tests. The next steps include evidence-based de-biasing strategies and bias response methods such as RECAST Theory.  Finally, anti-discrimination work requires practice, practice, practice, along with upending disbelief. It also requires mindfulness, wellness, and allyship.

For some, the barrier to recruiting and educating marginalized populations stems from ideas described in critical race theory. Misguided ideas include deficit thinking, such as that “parents of certain communities don’t care about education,” “students are too impacted by trauma to learn,” or “the goal of education is to assimilate diverse students,” or, most commonly, the myth of meritocracy where “we all have the same opportunities.” These are false beliefs. Institutions need to require authentic multicultural responsible and relevant teaching to ensure inclusive and broad-based success.

Tying it all together

We must demand the best evidence and tools to counter racism and discrimination within our institutions. With this, leaders must be held accountable and become their own EID officer. Evidence is not a conversation we have the luxury of walking away from. Children’s and families’ livelihoods are at risk, along with the nation’s economy, the future work force, and the social and economic well-being of the world. We want to go from “We got this” to “We’ve got your back.”

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