Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Facial diversity

Inside Higher Ed. reports on a study by a sociologist at Augsburg College on the discrepancy between the image of [racial] diversity portrayed in the recruiting materials of many institutions of higher education, on the one hand, and the actual diversity of the student body. The problem is, obviously, real, but the article does a commendable job of avoiding the easy criticism of these institutions as "hypocritical" or "deceitful." While colleges and universities need to be held accountable when the appearance of diversity suffices in the presence of a lack of any substantive diversity, the portrayal of a diverse campus can legitimately function as an expression of an administration's hopes and plans and may even encourage bringing about the reality the promotional pieces manufactured.

But the article hints at another problem, one I first encountered when working at a church in Uptown Cincinnati that legitimately (and somewhat successfully) strove to diversify its worshipping body as well as its ministerial staff. The problem is well-stated by Timothy Pippert, the sociologist behind the study.
Black equals diversity for many people. If you show African American students, people think that means your institution is diverse. [my emphasis]
Given the torrid (but not completely so) history of race relations in this country, this perception is understandable. But let's be clear: An absence of Black persons does not equal homogeneity, and vice versa. On my own campus I can think off the top of my head of only two current students, both of whom are biracial, who self-identify as African American and one recent graduate who is currently enrolled in one of our Masters programs who is Black. We also have (at least) one international Black student (though he is not African; the use of "African American" as a euphemism for "Black" runs into trouble precisely in the cases of non-Black African[-American]s and non-African Blacks). And while my institution has some way to go toward becoming a legitimately diverse campus (and knows it has its work cut out for it), our campus is more diverse than a simple count of Black (or even darker) faces would suggest.

My father is, to put it nebulously, a professional in the area of diversification and diversity-training. And though I would never claim to speak for him or on his behalf, he has said on numerous occasions something that we would all do well to remember: "Diversity means difference: young or old, American or international, male or female, Black, Caucasian, Latino/a, Asian (and so on)," all these things go some way toward promoting and expressing diversity. None of this excuses campuses that are content to operate without regard for racial minorities, but hopefully it does remind us that efforts toward diversification have be more than skin-deep.

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