Diversity au naturel

12 Oct

There’s a fairly popular theory that diversity begets multiculturalism: that if diverse people end up in the same school or community together, they learn tolerance, inclusion and equity.

Professor James Sidanius, Professor of Psychology & African American Studies at Harvard University, writes:

“[I]ntergroup contact reduces ethnic tension and increases in friendship across ethnic lines. [Schools] should do everything in their power to increase the level of contact between different ethnicities. They should make [group] assignments random and fight against the natural tendency for students to segregate themselves” (2010).

Makes sense, and definitely strokes the zeitgeist of a nation still recovering from a history chock-full of government-sanctioned segregation. Journalist Brooke Hauser marshalls anecdotal evidence for this school of thought in her book The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens (about students at Brooklyn’s International High). In an interview with NPR, she opines:

“I think the kids have an easier time at an international high school like this than they would at a more mainstream public school, because everybody’s in the same boat. They’re all new to the country. To qualify to get into the school, you have to have been in the country for fewer than four years. And you also have to be learning English. So I think there’s less teasing and taunting that happens at this school than at others” (http://www.npr.org/2011/09/26/140812785/school-poses-unique-challenges-for-immigrant-new-kids).

Dariana Castro, coordinator of special programs at International, adds her insider perspective, saying:

“I think that a lot of our students find that they end up having very close relationships with students from … countries that they have sometimes never heard of before …

“… [O]ne Chinese kid once told me, ‘I had never touched a black person’s hand before I came to this school’ … It was on a school trip, when they went ice skating. And they had no other choice but to hold each other because most of our kids had never been ice skating in their lives, even if they had come from countries where there were brutal winters … And so, there are relationships that develop.”

So there we have it: academia and experience that tells us that the simple experience of diversity makes for cross-group friendships and more respect among all. Proponents of what I call diversity au naturel sometimes assume that affinity groups only serve to deepen misunderstandings and cultivate prejudice. Sidanius has argued:

“Ethnically oriented, student-based organizations such as the Afro-American Studies Association or the Latin American Student Association create more [racial] tension. Once students joined these organizations, it increased their own ethnic identification and gave students the feeling that they were being ethnically victimized by other student groups” (2010).

It’s a pretty compelling argument. After all, who wants kids to feel worse about themselves and their peers?

But before we dismantle all identity groups and affinity occasions (think grade levels, parent groups, subject departments and single-sex sports teams), let’s go back and reconsider the arguments for diversity au naturel:

  • Sidanius urges us to “fight against the natural tendency for students to segregate themselves.” The natural tendency? Perhaps that tells us something we should understand before we vanquish it. As it turns out, people like to group, and they tend to form biases about how awesome their group is (note that the primary inclination is positive and self-directed, as opposed to negative and other-directed). Perhaps the answer is to leverage human tendencies for the intergroup outcomes we intend.
  • Castro’s case study is based on “one Chinese kid [who] once told [her]…” How many International High students do you think still haven’t ever touched a person of a different skin color? I’m willing to bet at least one. Biases run deep, and we’re much more likely to hear self-disclosures from folks who have overcome their biases than people who are holding on to them (and fear our judgment for it).

I would argue that in diversity or affinity, what matters is howpeople of different identities and cultures  interact. Contact theory (1950) tells us that for intergroup contact to decrease negative bias and cultivate mutual regard and understanding, that contact must:

  • Create equal status
  • Set common goals
  • Foster intergroup cooperation
  • Offer support from the community or institution

In other words, transformative contact must acknowledge social biases and intentionally structure opportunities for individuals to experience and learn outside of the default attitudes, behaviors and patterns that we otherwise operate in (and that fulfill our stereotypes of others and ourselves). It’s not just tossing a bunch of diverse kids in a room and waiting for them to sing kumbaya.

The same applies to affinity experiences: without intention and guidance, affinity experiences–just like diversity experiences–will lapse into habitual beliefs, ways and behaviors, and reproduce the same relationships and biases. 

The question is not affinity or diversity. Actually, the experience of both helps us to develop our identities and engage diversity, as long those experiences provide purposeful contact with the opportunity for us to keep learning about ourselves and others.

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