What We Mean When We Say Diversity

by Cassander L. Smith, Department of English

Many of us teachers are ill-equipped to deal with racial tensions when they manifest in the classroom. We lack teacher instruction and the cultural sensitivity to identify racist moments in the classroom, or we are missing the vocabulary to elucidate the racial dynamics when the moments happen. If a student asks us to differentiate between race and ethnicity, we might struggle to nuance the terms.

Because we are not sure how to talk about race in meaningful ways — or even what race is or how/why it operates — we might ignore it altogether, assume a posture of color-blindness. It is a part of post-racial rhetoric, the insidious idea that we can create a society in which people are blind to racial differences. It appears a noble goal, but it treats racial difference as if it were inherently problematic. To be clear, human difference is not the problem; it is simply a fact. Some people have darker skin. Some people have lighter-colored eyes. Some are short; some are tall. So, then, to approach people with the goal of ‘blinding’ ourselves to the very real ways that people physically show up in the world is, in fact, an act of erasure. We created the problem of racial difference when we, and this process started centuries ago, attached hierarchical structures to human difference. That problem does not disappear when we stop acknowledging that people physically look different.

Perhaps the opposite of color-blind is enunciation. I mean literally here the act of enunciating, articulating, pronouncing. We use this word in public speaking or in a music class to make distinct, legible every word (or note). All of those distinctly uttered words cohere into one message or musical piece. We can think about diversity and human difference in the same way, as an effort to understand the unique utterances of individuals — the unique set of experiences — racial, gendered, class, regional, and so forth that cohere inside an individual.

This means, then, rather than muting those differences we see in others, we think more deeply about those differences and listen to understand how they contribute to human existence. Perhaps, even when people say they are color-blind, they really want to engage people at the level of enunciation. That is to say, they want to encounter the individual.

So one big challenge to talking about and teaching about race is the challenge of enunciation. How do we enunciate human differences rather than minimizing them? How do we achieve that enunciation while dismantling the hierarchical structures that have made human difference so problematic? Answering these questions is essential to creating diverse, inclusive environments for students.

Resources

Bolton, Philathia, Cassander L. Smith, and Lee Bebout. Teaching with Tension: Race, Resistance, and Reality in the Classroom (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019).

Haltinner, Kristin. Teaching Race and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America: Adding Context to Colorblindness (New York: Springer, 2014).

Chávez, Alicia and Susan Longerbeam. Teaching Across Cultural Strengths: A Guide to Balancing Integrated and Individuated Cultural Frameworks in College Teaching (Sterling, VA.: Stylus Publishing, 2016)


Dr. Cassander L. Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of English.