Amid the celebrations of Martin Luther King Day at colleges across the land, it was easy to forget that classroom diversity is still some way from being accepted as a universal good. In Fisher v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that could determine the future of affirmative action admissions policies at universities, Chief Justice John Roberts asked: "What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?"
The question was breathtaking because it so clearly presumed an ethnic majority among students in the class—in effect, white students are the default and primary audience. For the minorities, whose access to college has historically been limited, the benefits of being allowed any perspective in a physics class are surely obvious.
But the issue is worth raising for everyone’s sake. A seminar course I taught on translation, to a group including several students of color, highlighted the benefits and the challenges of real diversity in the classroom.
The class did not go well. There were more battles than ever before over electronic devices in class, and two students often arrived late. One generally arrived 10 minutes after the start, offering muted apologies. The second would walk in as much as 15 minutes late without apology, earbuds still in place, and make for her usual place at the back next to her friend.
Against that background of violence and inequity, my attempt to be fair by treating everyone the same just didn't work.
I objected in what I thought was an even-handed way. In public I insisted that everyone come on time. In scheduled individual meetings I tried to draw each of the latecomers out—but while I learned something about the problems the first latecomer was dealing with, I made no headway with the second.
Then came the evaluations, conducted online and anonymously after the class was over. As usual they were mixed: some appreciative, some dissatisfied. But by far the most damning indicted me for hostility toward students of color. The author was also incensed that I had initially confused her name with that of her friend, something she attributed to their both being black. There were only two African Americans in the class, and one of them was latecomer number two. So the evaluation was clearly written by either her or her friend.
I was stunned, especially since I had left my first-ever teaching position, in England, with a less than glowing recommendation because I had protested about prejudicial treatment against Caribbean students. How had I now ended up on the wrong side of history—my own history? I wrote to both students to apologize for confusing their names and suggested meeting to talk, though, since both were about to graduate and leave campus, I knew that was unlikely to happen.
And then came Trayvon Martin. And Ferguson, Missouri. And Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray. And on and depressingly, unbelievably, on. And I began to understand what my students had been bringing in with them every day.
The trouble was, I'd been treating my classroom as a level playing field. I'd dealt with the latecomers, and the surreptitious cell phone-checkers, equally, or so I thought. I'd pointed out (truthfully) that the students whose names I'd taken longest to get right more often had long blond hair.
But there was no way I could insulate our interactions in class from our experience outside of it—which in their case meant a long history of discrimination and outright hostility, and in mine meant living with the privileges that come with white skin. As a result we (both, I think) had difficulty reading each other's behavior.
It was ironic that these troubles arose in a class on translation, in which we'd examined the ways in which meanings are—and aren't—transmitted between people, languages, and cultures, or across gaps in gender or power. So I should have known that the problem was bigger than any of us: it was intrinsic to the system in which we were all playing our part.
Against that background, my attempt to be fair by treating everyone the same just didn't work. With hindsight, I should have put racialized inequalities on the table for discussion by everyone, along with all the other gaps that block communication. This would emphasize that tackling those gaps is up to all of us, not just students—or faculty—of color.
The second issue is trickier. The attempted even-handedness built into the course evaluation mechanism was a mixed blessing. Standardized, anonymous, retrospective evaluations are, on the face of it, all about equality: Everyone can have their say, without fear or favor. And certainly it was anonymity that enabled this student to express criticisms she had not felt able to voice during the class.
But the benefits stopped there: There was no way for either of us to move beyond them. I do not know why that anonymous (but certainly African-American) student experienced me as hostile to students of color. But that perception could well have colored her relationship to me and the class from the start, and perhaps given rise to challenging behavior like arriving late.
To tackle the issue, though, we would have had to engage in dialogue, not just a cut-and-dried verdict on either side, and commit to the often painful process of listening to one another, explaining, debating, and, no doubt, often disagreeing—to a process, in other words, of bringing difference and, yes, inequality into the open.
This was not a class on physics. But it taught me a stark lesson on how history can hijack the present, in the classroom as everywhere else. It is too easy for teachers like me whose subject matter does not normally focus on inequality, whether racialized or not, to assume that it has no bearing in our classrooms. Or that treating everyone equally is enough. People hear things differently, depending on what lived experience they bring to the conversation. One person’s attempted even-handedness may slot neatly into another's experience of discrimination, whatever their intent.
I am grateful for what I learned from this experience. But what about the students, whose education was supposed to be at the center of the process? It will take more than either anonymous surveys or personal soul-searching to put the focus back where it belongs.
Recent initiatives at colleges like Brown University and Yale University to increase campus diversity by hiring more faculty of color are welcome and necessary. But even if the percentages of faculty of color suddenly shifted to reflect those in the student body, or even in the population as a whole, the rest of us would still need to learn how to talk to one another. We still have work to do on understanding where all our students are coming from, and cultivating supportive spaces in which we can explore and share our very different experiences. Only when we’ve got the measure of the distance between us can we set about bridging it.