Teaching Diversity from an Existential Perspective

A law class at Roanoke College.
A law class at Roanoke College.

For years, I have heard horror stories of professors teaching diversity classes being traumatized by their students. Included were stories of a number of experts in diversity who were passionate about teaching diversity, but no longer wanted to teach diversity courses because their course evaluations were poorer than in other classes, included personal slights, and the classrooms often felt hostile. Similarly, I’ve spoken to many students passionate about diversity that no longer felt safe bringing up the topic of diversity in classroom because of the responses from their professors and peers. This ranged from their comments being ignored, to being told to bring the issue up in the diversity class (as if this was the only place to talk about diversity), to being criticized or responded to hostilely for broaching the topic.

Recently, a news story broke about three white male students who filed a complaint about a black female professor because they were offended about discussion of structural racism in a course, including complaints about having to talk about diversity in every class. Of course, various perspectives on what occurred have emerged since the story first was reported.

However, it is becoming symbolic of the experience of many people who teach about diversity. It’s a difficult topic and without institution support as well as intentionality in cultivating an environment where these issues are discussed, it is difficult to broach the topic. For many students and professors, this means leaving an important part of who they are personally and professionally outside the classroom.

Despite some proclamations that we’ve have entered a post-racial society, it is clear that much work is still needed. I have long maintained that we are not really talking about diversity if we are too comfortable. Yet, unfortunately, this discomfort easily translates to hostility with some individuals, especially when we do not cultivate a safe environment for conversations.

Existential psychology, despite its struggles in becoming more diverse and adequately discussing multicultural issues, does offer some helpful principles for teaching about multiculturalism and diversity. Below is an initial formulation of some principles of an existential approach to teaching about diversity and multiculturalism:

1.    Human Dignity: First and foremost, an existential approach to teaching diversity and multiculturalism must begin with the recognition of the dignity of all people.
2.    Compassion, Empathy, and Understanding: Some approaches to diversity focus on accumulating knowledge; however, this is often ineffective. Instead, an existential approach is rooted in understanding that emerges through compassion and empathy for people from different cultural backgrounds.
3.    Go Beyond Knowledge to Experience: Consistent with the previous point, it is important to not just obtain knowledge about diversity, but to also experience. No amount of knowledge can replicate the understanding and wisdom that can emerge through experience.
4.    Individuality and Commonality: An existential approach to diversity honors the commonality at the group level as well as a commonality in that we are all human. Yet, it also recognizes our uniqueness, including that we are all individuals and that there remains great variation within groups. A holistic embracing of the person recognizes and respects both aspects.
5.    Knowledge of Differences Improves Our Ability to See People: It is not sufficient to just try to understand each individual as an individual and their own subjective experience, which is sometimes purported within existential and humanistic psychology. Without some knowledge of cultural differences, we are limited in our ability to truly see and understand some forms of difference.
6.    Zhi Mian: Zhi Mian is a Chinese concept that can be translated as “To face directly,” meaning to face oneself, others, and life directly and honestly. An honest facing, especially when it comes to diversity, is challenging, but necessary.
7.    Difference is Difficult: As noted, I’ve often maintained that if conversations about diversity are too easy, then you are not really talking about diversity. This is a difficult topic. If we go beyond superficial conversations, discomfort inevitably occurs at some point.
8.    Acknowledge Limitations: It is important for professors and everyone involved in the dialogues to acknowledge their own limitations in regard to diversity. Everyone has some struggles with diversity, no matter how well one has worked to address these issues personally. Also, with the richness of diversity that exists in the world, no one could fully master knowledge and understanding of all realms of diversity.
9.    It’s the Relationship that Changes: One of the most powerful ways to overcome prejudice is through direct relational contact. While bringing people into contact with people from different cultures may be the most effective way of overcoming the prejudice, other approaches that help to promote empathy and understanding at an experiential level, such as the use of the arts, can also be quite effective.  
10.    Achieving Diversity Requires Intentionality: It is not enough to simply say that we value diversity. If we are committed to building multicultural institutions and classrooms, there must be an ongoing commitment and intentionality.

While just an initial outline, these 10 principles drawn from principles in the existential literature are highly relevant to teaching diversity.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more stories by Louis Hoffman

Keep up with our community – follow us on Facebook and Twitter