FAQs about Diversity and Multiculturalism

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The Office of the Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs

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Frequently Asked Questions about Diversity and Multiculturalism

Frequently Asked Questions
About Diversity and Multiculturalism

Derald Wing Sue
Teachers College, Columbia University


1. Many believe that diversity or multicultural initiatives are not needed. While some prejudice, bias and discrimination do exist in our organization, it is not a major problem. Aren’t students, faculty, staff and administrators of color blowing things all out of proportion?

Oftentimes, the external feeling of serenity and the relatively “conflict free” relations among faculty, staff and students are comforting. Yet, beneath this tranquil exterior, the voices of marginalized groups on our campuses (such as students of color and LGBTQ students) are often not heard by the larger campus community. A significant number of faculty and students of color, for example, do not feel comfortable or validated by the educational environment. The process of invalidation is, oftentimes, embedded in the policies, programs and practices of the institution and in the words and deeds of well-intentioned majority group members who are unaware that they are engaging in hurtful actions toward socially devalued groups As a result, individual and institutional bias represent an invisible veil from which many of us cannot accurately see nor experience the invalidation process which persons of color are forced to endure. While many White Americans are sensitive and understanding, asking White faculty and students whether there is bias and discrimination on campus; whether the university structures are adequate to address inequities; and whether it is doing enough to educate and ameliorate disparities and lack of inclusion may not provide the most fruitful answers to these questions.

After all, if you want to learn about sexism, do you ask men or women? If you want to learn about racism, do you ask Whites or persons of color? If you want to understand homophobia, do you ask straights or gays?

2. Most educators believe they are decent, good and moral people. They do not discriminate and are not prejudiced. Isn’t advocating for the formation of another committee, structure, or new initiative insulting to White administrators, faculty, staff and students?

Most of us believe strongly in the basic tenets of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Concepts of democracy and fairness are present throughout these important and historic documents. Most White faculty experience themselves as moral, decent, and good people. And, indeed they are! This fact, however, is both an obstacle and a potential ally in understanding issues of discrimination, prejudice, and lack of equal access and opportunity.

It is an obstacle in this respect. Because most White faculty and administrators would not intentionally discriminate, they often find great difficulty in realizing that their belief systems, actions, and the present institutional structures may not allow for equal access and opportunity for all groups. I believe it is important to acknowledge that no one was born wanting to be biased, bigoted, and prejudiced. Misinformation related to culturally different groups is not acquired by our free choice. These are imposed upon us through a painful process of social conditioning. To believe that I was born and raised in the United States and somehow have been immune from inheriting the racial biases of my forebears is, I believe, the height of naiveté or arrogance.

On the other hand, I have found that because White educators are basically decent and moral folks, when they are able to understand the concerns of minority faculty and students without feeling defensive, they become valuable allies and are truly motivated to end injustice.

3. The talk about unfairness, racism, sexism and prejudice makes some faculty members at our institution feel accused and blamed unreasonably for past injustices. They state that those things happened in the past and they had nothing to do with it. So, why blame them?

Blame is not the intent of multicultural training, but accepting responsibility for rectifying past injustices and creating a community that is more inclusive and equitable in its treatment of racial/ethnic minorities are central to its mission. I realize that it is unfair and counterproductive to attribute blame to White educators for past injustices; I realize that they are not responsible for what their ancestors might have done; and I realize that they had no hand in whatever happened in the past. Yet, it is important to realize two points.

First, it is important that our White colleagues and students realize how they may still benefit from the past actions of their ancestors and continue to reap the benefits of the present social/educational arrangements. When these arrangements are unfair to some and benefit others, then we must all accept the responsibility of making changes that will allow for equal access and opportunity.

Second, our concerns are directed at the present and future, not the past. While history is important in many ways, there are certainly enough issues in the here and now which require our attention. Prejudice and discrimination in education are not just things of the past.

4. What good is diversity/multicultural training? The problem of prejudice and discrimination is as old as human history itself. It’s a discouraging and hopeless situation.

Yes, I agree that prejudice and discrimination is as old as human history. And, it can be discouraging and feel hopeless. Yet, the only other alternative is to do nothing and allow disparities to continue. Should we, therefore, give up?

We should not accept the conclusion that nothing can be done. Each of us must find the courage to combat injustice or unfairness when we see it. We must work toward building multicultural alliances, helping one another, and seeing that everyone on the campus community are treated fairly and included at all levels of the college. To accept the belief that “nothing can be done” and that it is hopeless is to avoid responsibility for taking personal action on behalf of our campus and for the wider value of social justice.

5. What do you mean by “diversity”? Isn’t there a better word to use?

The term “diversity” gained official recognition and widespread usage during the 1980's and continues as the key concept to describe the group-based nature of human heterogeneity. It is now used by government agencies, business and industry, and educational institutions to refer to group differences and similarities related to variations in race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, physical abilities, social class, age and other socially meaningful categorizations. Nearly all major corporations have engaged in some form of diversity training and/or have internal mechanisms in Human Resource Departments that are responsible for addressing these issues.

Diversity is not a problem, but attitudes/beliefs and monocultural policies/practices that prevent equal access and opportunities on the basis of differences are truly the problem. In conclusion, the word “diversity” is not only the most inclusive to describe human group variations, but the most accurate means of doing so. To use another word would be to add greater confusion and ambiguity. More importantly, to do so may signal the unconscious personal discomfort or bias of those advocating a different word choice.

6. Why do people get so upset and emotional about these issues? I wouldn’t feel so against diversity or multicultural training if people could act in an objective and calm manner.

The question seems to imply that dissent and disagreements should be avoided. I believe that open dialogue to discuss and work through differences in thoughts, beliefs and values are crucial to the operation of a democratic society. It is healthy when we are allowed to freely dialogue with one another. Many marginalized group members believe that, too often, communities desire a monologue in order to prevent dissenting voices. Yet, any honest discussion of race and racism is bound to evoke strong emotional reactions. Many of the feelings deal with anger (“Don’t you dare accuse me of being racist!”), guilt (“I feel guilty, I should have done something.”), defensiveness (“I already do enough for minorities, what more do you want from me.”), helplessness (“The problem is too big…. what can I do?”) shame (I can’t face my minority friends after what I said.”), being turned off (“I have other priorities in life.”), and fear (“Look, as a White man I can’t find a job anymore”). These reactions are unpleasant and produce discomfort in most of us. No wonder it is easier to avoid talking or thinking about race and racism than entering into a searching dialogue about the topics. The academic protocol and to some extent, the politeness protocol serve as barriers to open and honest dialogue about the pain of discrimination and how each and every one of us perpetuate bias through our silence or obliviousness.


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