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Diversity: Why We Can’t Stop Talking

Posted on 18 Mar | 0 comments
Colours of Diversity Mural in Singapore.
Colours of Diversity Mural in Singapore.

“We don’t need to talk about diversity; we’ve got that covered.” Whenever I hear these or similar words, I immediately am skeptical and on guard. In fact, I would say that statements of this sentiment are among the most common microaggressions in contemporary culture. When it comes to diversity, we never have it covered; it’s a work in progress at best.

Even where we expect institutions to be good at diversity, there are still significant problems. Higher education has been one of the fields voicing the strongest commitments to multiculturalism and diversity. Yet, in the last several months, there have been a number of significant stories that evidence failures in the academy when it comes to diversity. If our institutions preparing the next generation of leaders are failing on diversity, it will be that much more difficult to actualize the change that is needed.

In the Fall of 2013, UCLA students produced a video voicing concern about the under-representation of African-American males at UCLA. The video noted that 65 percent of the African-American males were undergraduate athletes. More recently, Harvard students were featured in a photo campaign titled, “I, too, am Harvard,” about their experiences at Harvard. The photo campaign reflected the pervasiveness of the microaggressions and racism experienced by many students at Harvard.

The Tyranny of Excuses
When pointing out statistics and demographics about diversity problems, it is common to quickly be met with excuses. When advocating for increasing diversity at a previous place of employment the response was, “We cannot get qualified students and faculty to apply.” This is not an excuse, but an indictment. If recruiting diversity is difficult, one must consider systemic issues that may be contributing to this problem. For example, it should be considered where the recruiting is occurring. Additionally, it is important to examine if there are aspects of the organizational culture or the way that the organization presents itself that discourages diversity in subtle ways.

Another common excuse for the lack of diversity is the historical context. When voicing concern about the imbalance between men and women in awards, fellows, and board members within the Society for Humanistic Psychology, this occasionally was met with the response that this is just due to history, suggesting that it is really not a current issue of concern. There is a degree of truth in that there is a historical context that helps explain aspects of the discrepancy. However, when history is used to justify, then it can easily become an excuse.  

Tyrannies of Resistance
It is customary that the president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology sets the theme for the society’s program at the American Psychological Association. During my year as president, I chose a theme related to diversity. After selecting a diversity theme, I received an email voicing concern that priority would be given to people representing diversity instead of the quality of the proposals. Nothing was ever said suggesting the privileging of proposals by people representing diversity would occur. It was merely an assumption.

While it would be unfair to assume the reason this particular concern was voiced, it was similar to common resistances. First, it is common for people to fear the loss of their privilege. When people become accustom to privilege, it is natural to have some anxiety about losing it. I admit, as a White male of privilege, I have experienced this fear at times. I do my best to remain mindful of these fears when they occur so that I can avoid responding and acting based upon them.

Second, it is often assumed that the only way individuals representing diversity will obtain jobs or have proposals or papers accepted is if they are given special consideration. This is quite different than the fear of loss of privilege as it frequently reflects a deeply negative view of people from particular groups, viewing them as inferior or lesser than in some essential ways. This is often reinforced when cultural differences are reflected in writing and scholarship styles. Common academic standards reflect cultural biases. It is often argued that the more objective, distanced style of scholarly writing is just good writing, which denies the cultural preferences implicit any writing styles. Good, scholarly writing can come in many styles and varieties. The claim of universal standards of what is good can be used as a form of resistance and justification.

Resistance comes in many other forms, too. It is commonly advocated that as long as we have a variety of ideas, theoretical approaches, or epistemologies, that we do not have to consider representation. Resistance can come in fears of a change in the organizational culture or fear of the introduction of conflict. Another common form of resistance is tokenism, which is often represented in trying to look more diverse without really addressing the deeper forms of diversity. As an example of this, when serving on a search committee that was considering the application of an impressive candidate who happened to be a woman of color, a person on the search committee commented, “If only she was disabled.” I have heard variations of this extremely offensive comment in too many settings. The implicit message is that if we can represent multiple forms of diversity in one individual then we do not have to risk more uncomfortable changes that could be part of becoming more broadly diverse.

Conclusion
We have a long way to go. Each time I reflect on the progress that has been made in regard to diversity, I can’t help coming back to this simple, evident realization: We have a long way to go. I’m sure some would read the examples I mention here and quickly dismiss them saying that they are anecdotal and not representative. Yet, that is not my experience. I witness them too often.

I often find myself getting weary of advocating for diversity and become tempted to just back off. It would be so much easier. Yet, I can’t consider this long before realizing that my weariness cannot compare to weariness of so many for whom this reality is not something they can choose to back off from—it is their daily reality. We cannot stop talking. We cannot stop advocating. I am convinced that if we stop advocating and fighting for diversity issues, we will regress, and it is sure to get worse. The only path is forward or backward; there is no standing still.

-- Louis Hoffman

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