What Does “Diversity” Mean?

This is a rough time to be in higher education or working alongside it, which means it is also the right time to keep doing the work.

I am going to reflect on “diversity,” a word that covers a potentially massively large territory. All of that space may not be under your purview depending on your institution’s particular composition. “Diversity” gets used all over the place, but I wonder if we all use it the same way.

I am going to provide a couple vignettes from my time on various campuses to get us thinking about this. Now, I don’t have advice here per se, but perhaps something will resonate and get you working with your colleagues to look for places where diversity has gone unsupported in your specific context.

The first vignette features a research project I did for a graduate school class on different types of literacy and their interactions with other cultural norms and practices. As a white Latinx person who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or having much contact with Latin American cultures during my youth, grad school was a journey of discovery for me. I was teaching courses on Latinx cultures in the U.S. and participating in Latinx affinity organizations. I got to talk about language and identity with my students of all backgrounds. The trust they placed in me to care for their stories has been a profound influence on me as a higher ed professional.

So for my grad class, I did a study in which I used a semi-structured survey to query bilingual college students at a Midwestern university. (I gave the students and their campus pseudonymous names.) I asked them about which languages they spoke while doing everyday tasks and schoolwork, and in which languages they did a variety of types of reading and writing. I then talked to them about how their language backgrounds impacted their educational attainment and sense of what it means to be an American citizen. Participants were bilingual in Spanish and English and in “mother tongue” languages of India (e.g., Hindi and Marathi) and English.

The results were enlightening and unsettling—and frankly not that rare in spirit if not detail. The short version is that while the campus they attended said a lot about “diversity” in both internal and external communications, one of the types of diversity that was not supported was “language.” There was little attention paid on campus to how much language (as a familial, aesthetic and identity matter) was a positive contributor to the campus mosaic.

Worse, language-related criticisms were one of the last bastions of acceptable racism on campus. As an example, a participant reported that her professor would not give her any comments on the content of a paper because of grammatical errors. When the professor told her this, he did not take the opportunity to ask her what she was trying to say.

This student was an award-winning writer in high school. I read some of her work and can state that there were predictable grammatical mistakes someone writing as a first-language Spanish speaker might make, but they did not impact the ability to glean content. However, whether this professor knew it or not, he operated according to a deficit model in which this student’s languages told him her ideas were less important than her grammar. In her experience, they were a source of creativity and an emblem of her identity.

In the second vignette, which is a composite of multiple campuses, students and I examine campus diversity webpages, discussing whether those representations reflect their experience. We compare which students appear in photos, where they are on campus, their activities and whether those represent actual conditions. We also talk about how those websites relate to actual campus demography.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some Latinx students did not believe these materials were authentic.

A particular example was a diversity website that included a large banner photo of a group of multiracial students dressed in business casual clothes, smiling as they walked across campus. The picture hit a false note because there was a one of every type: one white student, one Latinx student, one African American-student, one Asian student… . You get the picture. The students read it as profoundly tokenizing and unreal.

Some Latinx students reported a consistent tension between feeling like they want to be in this happy imagined multicultural setting and feeling like much of the institutions’ rationale for allowing their presence lay in what they can teach white students.

They sometimes described feeling that they were not welcome on their own merits.

They are intensely aware that they are labelled as “diverse” students—they are not just “students.” To them this related to the framing of exposure to diversity as a way to help certain people attain educational and work success. The underlying assumption built into this discourse is that there is an unmarked, default white population who are the norm, and everyone else is marked by their deviation from the norm. Latinx students have told me they feel they are sort of like exhibits to teach white students how to behave and speak like worldly people. However, the instrumental function of diversity, where diverse presence fashions a tool for others to wield, does not do a good job actually convincing Latinx students that they are innately valued as human beings.*

On top of that, there was a pervasive sense that what they have to do and say to be successful in college means they have to leave behind important aspects of themselves, the ones that tie them to family and history.

In both vignettes, it became clear that part of what kept students from feeling fully accepted by their campuses centered on language. This was equally true for many African American and immigrant students, as well. The sense that they never spoke correctly and never could followed them everywhere.

Let’s be clear: language is often used as a proxy for categories it’s not “polite” to talk about: “I’m not talking about her race. I’m talking about how she writes.”

But language is one of the facets we use to construct the categories we use to dole out access to resources and social power, like race. Students were very clear in both vignettes, as well, that speaking as a racialized and/or immigrant person directly opened them up to suspicion about just how American they really were. Citizenship is a linguistic matter as much as it is one of birthright or documentation.

Okay. Maybe I do have one piece of advice. As you go forward into the fall semester, reflect on whether diversity can really be spoken into existence on your campus. Are your definitions of “diversity” and “citizenship” expansive enough to accommodate the things your community says, the way they need to say them?

*Truth be told, this was a part of my student experience, as well. I earned a diversity fellowship (and I use “earned” pointedly) and definitely got to hear about how the value of my background came down to the dollar value of that fellowship.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.