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Real Diversity Means We’re Not All the Same

The way Americans often squirm when terms like race and diversity are introduced suggests that even many best-intentioned approaches to these defining issues are all wrong.

In particularly optimistic moments, it’s possible to conceive of a time when diversity is not divisive, racism is barely remembered and discrimination has gone the way of witch burnings. But 45 years after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, such a day seems infinitely far off. Race relations in the U.S. remain difficult at best.

We have the right to drink from the same fountains, ride on the same buses, live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same schools, hold the same jobs and pursue the same dreams, but much still is not right. A great body of law has been established and a multitude of efforts have been undertaken to build a society in which people of all kinds live harmoniously in mutual respect and honor — and yet, words like race, diversity, inclusiveness and multiculturalism make us squirm, and no one wants to discuss them.

Clearly, having civil rights is not the same as getting diversity right.

So what’s gone wrong? And what is there to do about it? And where do we start?

Getting Over Color Blindness
Diversity experts have some ideas, and many of them suggest that one of the first things we should do is stop aspiring to color blindness — primarily because it is not an attainable goal. Skin color, like hair color, eye shape and color, or any other physical attribute, is a distinguishing feature of human beings. We notice such things almost from the time we are born.

In a study that has been widely cited, most noticeably in the book Nurture Shock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, University of Colorado researcher Phyllis Katz found that 6-month-old babies stare longer at a photograph of a face if the person depicted is racially different from the infant’s parents. Katz interpreted this to mean that the babies find the face unusual and, in their infantile way, try to make sense of it.

In a study by University of Texas researcher Rebecca Bigler, 3-year-olds formed biases based on the differences they saw by, for instance, ascribing positive attributes to those who closely resembled them and reserving negative qualities for those who did not. Thus, even very young children whose socialization is just beginning not only identify differences but also assign meaning to them.

Further, says Paul Gorski, an assistant professor of integrative studies at George Mason University and founder of Educating for Equity and Social Justice, “Color-blindness denies people validation of their whole person.”

The whole person is important even in forming biases, adds Alison Park, a Korean-American who spent more than a decade teaching in the San Francisco Bay area before founding Blink, a consultancy specializing in diversity issues at private schools. “We distinguish and have biases based not just on race but also on age, gender, socioeconomics, weight, height and so on,” she says. “Diversity is about who we are and includes an element of race, as opposed to being only about race.

“We are all different. We all notice that we’re different. We all have biases based on perceptions of the many ways in which we’re different. And all of that is OK,” she adds. “It’s discrimination we need to fight.”

In his book also titled Blink (though with no relationship to Park’s consultancy), half-white, half-black author Malcolm Gladwell puts it more perfunctorily when he says, “This whole ‘I’m colorblind, I don’t have biases,’ is bull.”

Children are noticing differences, but parents generally aren’t talking about them, and they should be, as soon as the kids are old enough to notice and talk about what they see, according to April Harris-Britt, a clinical psychologist specializing in child, adolescent, and family issues and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She suggests that remaining mute about something as obvious as racial differences sends children the message that race is a forbidden subject, just when they are searching for the meaning of this distinguishing feature.

But talking about it doesn’t mean sticking to platitudes like “everyone is equal” or hanging up some posters depicting a multiracial group of smiling kids. That’s too subtle for kids, says Harris-Britt, adding that teachers and schools need to develop ways for children to understand differences explicitly. Narratives that provide concrete examples are useful, she says, as is delving into the many different and equally valid ways that different-looking people go about their lives.

A lack of messages supporting the value of a diverse, multicultural society and the people it comprises produces a clear impact in older kids. For example, students attending diversity-rich high schools have been shown to have more negative stereotypes about students of other races, ethnicities, sexuality and so on than do students at less diverse schools.

In a Newsweek article titled “See Baby Discriminate” and written by Bronson and Merryman after their book came out, the authors cited research that indicated “the possibility of developmental ‘windows’ — stages when children's attitudes might be most amenable to change.”

They described one experiment in which first-grade children who were put in cross-race study groups experienced a much higher level of interracial play at recess than did students who were not in such groups. But the same kind of study groups made no difference with third-graders.

“It's possible, say the authors, “that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.”

Beyond Good Intentions
Well-intended laws, initiatives and other efforts to promote equality have provided opportunities for minority groups but have also resulted in members of such groups, whether poor, black, gay or non-English-speaking, routinely being labeled as not only different from the “norm,” but also “at risk.”

That, in turn, is an extension of another prevailing negative notion, which is that minorities or underrepresented groups have — or even are — a problem or are somehow “in deficit,” that is, missing something they need to thrive, rather than possessing a wealth of cultural, social and linguistic assets.

The assumption, Gorski says, is that “if they just learn the ways of the dominant norm, everything will be fine.” By “problematizing” minorities, he says, “we diminish them.”

“When we look at diversity, we usually focus on minorities and assume they are at a disadvantage or having a difficult time,” explains Park. “Crisis management for minority groups is important because different groups face real deficits and hurdles. But diversity isn’t just about crises. Outright acts of discrimination are important to look at, but so are the day-to-day ways in which, say, a fourth-grade boy who hasn’t quite figured out his sexual identity — because, after all, he’s 9 years old — has to cover up his questions about that and doesn’t really have an open field to explore who he is or might be. I’m as concerned about him as I am about the high school kid who’s facing outright homophobia.”

Further, Park says, the narrow focus on minority groups has led to the assumption that “dominant identities don’t really have an identity, don’t really have a culture and don’t really have a sense of self.”

For instance, in the U.S., people of color may view white people primarily as privileged oppressors, says Park. She believes that “reducing whiteness to privilege is an error that causes a ripple effect of misunderstanding: Beyond misrepresenting white identity and culture, the oversimplification implies that ‘of color’ is synonymous with ‘oppressed.’” And that, she says, “limits race relations to a caricatured dichotomy of abusers and their abused. White — like any other color — encompasses an entire lived culture, not just a fixed estimation of power. No wonder conversations about race mire in apology and accusation.”

While minority groups are routinely assumed to be in deficit and whites to be powerful oppressors, to the detriment of both, other groups tend to disappear from consideration, falling between the cracks of the diversity discussion. “One of the largest student minority groups in the Bay Area is made up of half-white, half-Asian kids,” says Park. “But when you tell people that, they often say, ‘Oh, those students of color.’

“When we talk about diversity, we are often talking only about black people,” she continues. “That pigeonholes blacks as victims and overlooks diversity and the complexity of diversity in other people of color, when there is a clear need for everyone to have room at the table in the dialog about identity and culture.”

The Trivialization of Multicultural Education
While people tend to have good intentions, say the experts, parents, teachers and administrators have routinely fallen into the trap of setting unambitious goals for diversity education and inclusion. The bar is set at having two people of different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, religion, etc., be able to be polite. Gorski asks teachers to consider whether their work is “focused on helping people feel OK sitting next to each other, or on addressing the root problem of imbalances of power and privilege that will remain regardless of who sits next to whom.”

When it comes to multicultural education, the law of unintended consequences seems to be hard at work.

Schools often incorporate multicultural materials of various kinds to forward the message of acceptance, but Bigler, at the University of Texas, has found most such materials to be “little more than depictions of a bunch of rainbow kids dancing around.”

A positive image? Perhaps.

An informative and useful one? Not so much.

Better, says Bigler, are books that “specifically show kids exactly how kids of other ethnicities approach things in similar and different ways.”

Schools’ occasional diversity celebrations also come under fire. The intended message is fine, according to Jean Monroe of BANDTEC, a diversity training and support center in Oakland, Calif., in an article for The Children’s Advocate, the magazine of the Action Alliance for Children. “But when you focus only on cultural diversity around the calendar, you’re saying that diversity is not part of the everyday environment. Every other day becomes ‘White Day.’”

As Park observes, “Diversity often concretizes around a concern about the numbers of people of color on campus. People of color understand themselves to be “the diversity” at schools. This expectation — that people of color enrich the community by being different, while white people can simply be — sets up a barrier to authentic inclusion even while schools strive to open their campuses.”

In the face of traditional diversity celebrations, Gorski suggest that teachers ask themselves, “Am I asking students who are already alienated by most aspects of education to celebrate a difference for which they are routinely oppressed?”

The Way Forward
To these writers and researchers, the time has come to reframe diversity in this country to align with social justice. It’s easy to bus kids of color to a mostly white school — but not for the kids. It’s easy to put up posters and set aside special days — but the hidden, nuanced, unintended messages can be as bad as the discrimination they seek to overcome.

“Reframing diversity means that it’s an inclusive diversity,” Park says. “And it means rethinking what and who the problem is. I walk into discussions all the time and find people who are satisfied that they’re not the KKK. The big issue is often with well-meaning folks in the center.”

Neither she nor others expect progress to be easy or painless.

“Conflict is the very hallmark of authentic multiculturalism,” she says. “As sulfur indicates the health of a marshland, so conflict signifies the health of a society.”

The key is "thinking before you speak and listening and really hearing what others say," says Barbara Daniels-Love, volunteer manager for Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity Head Start. She adds: “Sitting with discomfort and uneasiness is part of the process” of overcoming prejudice.

For Gorski, the important question is “whether every student who walks into our schools has an opportunity to achieve to her or his fullest, to have access to an equitably validating, supportive learning environment, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, home language, (dis)ability, and any other dimension of her or his identity.”

On a good day, one can think, maybe someday.