Education’s Diversity Dilemma: What Can Be Done

My 18 years as a public high school teacher and current 15 years as a university professor have one dilemma in common: diversity.

At the K-12 level, many schools struggle to recruit and maintain a diverse faculty; while universities often face a lack of diversity in both faculty and students.

The teaching staff at the rural South Carolina school where I taught was nearly all white, working-class, and essentially all Christian. Once we hired an outstanding woman to teach science; she happened to be a native of India and Hindu.

The culture in the school was so toxic to her diversity, that she left—or better phrased, she was run off by the implicit and direct messages of the people and the culture of the school.

My university has recently confronted the low percentage of women faculty as well as concerns about faulty and student diversity.

At our opening faculty retreat focusing on diversity and inclusion, a female faculty member expressed concern over the time and energy needed to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to gender identity and/or gender expression.

Concurrently, several faculty expressed surprise that complimenting black faculty or students for being “articulate” is racist and offensive.

More pervasive, however, was the demand that we not proceed with diversity initiatives without defining diversity, and that always included concerns about reducing diversity to race. Both of these strategies bound to the norms of academia, in effect, marginalize the power of privilege (many whites have been and are hired because they are white) and the realities of race in the diversity dilemma.

Parallel to these strategies were responses to a gender study at our university, a study that was refuted by several white male faculty because it didn’t (in their view) meet the standards of high-quality research—too much anecdote, and thus, a code for too many voices from those affected, from those normally without a voice.

All of these situations point to the toxic nature of centered communities that derive from both individual and systemic forces—even when many or most of the people consider themselves not bigoted, racist, classist, homophobic, or sexist.

Individuals often embody and express bigotry despite their own intentions not to be bigoted or intolerant due to a lack of critical consciousness, and thus, as lack of critical sensitivity.

Over the decades from when I graduated high school and through my career teaching at the school, the community saw a significant decrease in blacks, resulting in a relatively white community. The faculty of the schools stayed almost entirely white—even as schools sought more teachers of color.

My current university has worked diligently—as have many universities—to increase student and faculty diversity, with little to show for all the effort.

This is the diversity dilemma that remains—and may be nearly impossible to correct. Therefore, many diversity and inclusion initiatives become bogged down in and/or eventually abandon diversity efforts because of inadequate outcomes related to goals.

The failure to increase diversity of faculty, for example, may be a lack of political will—as Maybeth Gasman argues:

While giving a talk about Minority Serving Institutions at a recent higher education forum, I was asked a question pertaining to the lack of faculty of color at many majority institutions, especially more elite institutions.

My response was frank: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” Those in the audience were surprised by my candor and gave me a round of applause for the honesty.

But one missing component of diversity and inclusion initiatives is certain: working toward culturally relevant communities that acknowledge the sensitivity and privilege afforded centered people, that work to spread that sensitivity to all members of the community, and that decrease and erase the privilege afforded centered people.

“Culturally relevant,” as envisioned by Gloria Ladson-Billings [1], in educational communities must foster awareness and sensitivity to culture and race as well as to gender, sexuality, social class, and religion—among faculty, staff, and students.

In schools and colleges, the question is not if we have the time and energy to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to transgender people, but how we can assure that all members of the community are educated on the power of gendered language to center and oppress people.

For example, schools and universities can adopt “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun as a simple policy move, but also infuse the gender politics of language throughout the curriculum and in faculty development.

The paradox of course is multi-layered: education has a diversity dilemma that quite possibly cannot be addressed well directly, but may be ameliorated by education itself, education that is purposefully culturally relevant and systemic.

Diversifying a toxic community is unlikely to be as effective as creating an inclusive community that invites diversity.

Diversity initiatives that fail to realize that the latter can and must be done are making a regrettable mistake that may jeopardize the best of intentions of all involved.


[1] See her definition:

I have defined culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition (1992c) not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment.

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