My Degree in Diversity

Ashley Thorne

Captain Hudson stared. “Not in the teeth of the monsoon?...I mean—the navigation. You’d have to have a man who could work lunars—”

Prince shrugged again. “What’s so hard about lunars? Every man in my crew can work a lunar.”

In Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Jean Lee Latham tells how one boy, Nat Bowditch, learned the secrets of maritime navigation and taught them to everyone on board, making the Astrea the only ship that could safely sail in the teeth of the monsoon.

Last month, I made my own venture into the unknown. I took an online course on how to lead diversity education workshops.

The course, called “Facilitating Diversity Education Experiences: A Guide for New Professionals,” was offered by StudentAffairs.com. For only $130, I had the chance to enter the inner circle of diversicracy. I was full of curiosity about the course: what would be the assigned readings, the teaching material, the homework? Believing that a stint at sea would teach me what is necessary to know in order to steer through the storm of higher education ideology, I stepped lightly up the gangplank.

I logged in for my first day of class and looked over the assignments. Each one required students to answer three or four questions on a discussion board public to all in the class. We were first asked to introduce ourselves. I noted introductions from residence life coordinators, student affairs officers, and directors of multicultural programs. They hailed from DeSales University, University of California-San Diego, the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University, Holy Family University, Wentworth Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and California State University.

Next we were to specify the race and gender we “most identify with,” along with reasons we are proud to have these identities. It seemed a strange juxtaposition. If it is assumed that we are proud to be who we are, shouldn’t it follow that we fully identify with our race and gender?

The identity worksheet also included a true/false question: “I have personally either been a victim of oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism) at least once in my life or personally eye-witnessed (i.e. not on TV, movie or heard from a friend) an act of oppression against someone else.” I considered telling about an experience as a victim of anti-redheadism. But the worksheet was optional, so I kept my recollections to myself.

I had looked forward to getting to know the two course instructors, Debra Y. Griffith of San Jose State University and Thomas C. Segar of the University of Maryland. I anticipated seeing them in video lectures and interacting with them on the discussion board. Other than an initial brief welcome note, however, Ms. Griffith and Mr. Segar were non-presences in the course and we students were left to flounder as best we could.

The instructors assigned one piece of required reading: a packet they had compiled, called “Theoretical Foundations.” The packet was a set of “identity development models,” the totality of which consisted of ethnic identity, white identity, black racial identity, and homosexual identity.

There I read that white identity development (according to Helms, 1990) happens in stages: Contact, Disintegration, Reintegration, Immersion-Emersion (as exemplified in statements like, “We need to change, not them…Hey, it’s not cool to make those racist jokes”), and Autonomy (i.e., “I am both proud of being White and I am a supportive agent for change and equality for all races and cultures.”). The other identity models have similar patterns in their phases: confusion, denial, rage, acceptance, pride.

When I read about identity development models, I was at first confused. What did they mean anyways? Do all ethnic, white, black, and homosexual people go through these stages, and in this order? Or is the pattern true only of those who have reached multicultural “maturity”? I posed my queries on the discussion board and was not answered.

After that I thought, “But I never went through these stages.” Perhaps I was in denial. I haven’t yet gotten to rage, acceptance, or pride, but I do think it interesting that pride is the end point for each model. In fact, NAS has found that, nurtured in diversity training, people often place their identity in their group’s prideful rage.

Griffith and Segar’s packet also includes one page on learning styles and another on the four areas of focus for diversity education experiences: Awareness, Appreciation, Acceptance, and Advocacy. “Awareness,” it said, “involves recognizing that various identities and ways of being exist that are different than your own.” I was always under the impression that most of us recognize that a few months after birth, but I guess sometimes you have to teach these things.

The rest of the three-week course consisted of discussion board assignments with a few introductory words reminding us to, “Get people moving!” and “Infuse social justice advocacy into your session.” As the course moved forward, my anticipation grew…I was about to learn the deep secrets of diversity education. I wondered which principles made up the core doctrines, which phrases would be approved for group chanting, and which signals measured “awareness” progress.

But I finished last week (Did I graduate? Will I get a degree?) to find my hopes had been in vain. Instead of giving clues as to what the actual content of a diversity workshop should be, the questions and accompanying hints dealt exclusively with method. The session leader, they indicated, should have certain “skill sets” to be a facilitator, namely, “being in the moment”; “witnessing what is going on around you”; “taking appropriate risks”; being “attentive, energetic, self-aware, affable”; and leading with “spirit.” Facilitators (at one point called “Presentrainers”) should also consider logistics such as room temperature and privacy from outside disruption.

These directives sounded like pointers for leading a small group Bible study. Of course, there were some distinctly diversiphilian questions, like “How can you go beyond ‘celebrating differences’ to connecting stereotypes, ignorance, prejudice, privilege?” and “What do you know about world history in general, and U.S. history in particular (e.g., see Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and/or Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America) to make sense of the current state of diversity?” Still, the questions were posed, not answered.

Perhaps the course was trying to follow its own rules of “what to avoid in designing and delivering educational experiences”:

1.      Too prescriptive – “This is what you need to do to demonstrate your appreciation for diversity… Just follow these ten steps I’ve outlined here, and you will get all you need to get within the next 59 minutes”

2.      Too superficial – “Our differences are only skin deep. We are all really the same inside… Let’s talk about how much we love everyone, and how we don’t even see color or anything like that.”

3.      Too cognitive – “Let’s think about diversity, but we can’t have any feelings at all about any of this stuff. In fact, let’s just be intellectual about this, and simply let the statistics speak for themselves.”

4.      Too rigid – “Here’s my outline, and we’re going to stick to every single point. Please don’t ask any questions that may put us behind or keep me from sticking to this exactly as I have planned it. We gotta stick to my plan.”

5.      TOO MUCH – “Ok, we have tons of fun stuff planned for today. First we’ll go over these 20 items, and then we have about five activities, then we have about three small group segments, and then we come back together for about three or four debriefings. All of that must happen before we go to lunch.”

A quick note: caution about being “too cognitive” is highly indicative of diversity education culture’s embrace of the opposite extreme, emotionalism. This culture has spread to the classroom, ushering in the “feelings-are-everything-in-learning” era. Accordingly, the online course faced no danger of being too rigid, prescriptive, or cognitive.

My poor classmate, who was “quite a newby at this,” and whose job actually depended on the information, confirmed the class’s vacuity in her posting on the “general questions not covered in the materials” discussion board (where the instructors conceded, “We realize that we have not exhausted all the material on this topic”). “Newby” diversity trainer asked the vital question and appealed for “any information/suggestions of what people do in their sessions.” Another, more experienced classmate took pity on her and gave her some links to educational diversity games: Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood, Privilege Walk, and BaFa’ BaFa’.

The first is named after Archie Bunker, the racist yet lovable character from the TV show All in the Family. In this game, participants are given various identity labels to role play, with the goal of building a town using Archie bucks and building permits. The “trick” in the game is that the people playing police officers “should capitalize on every stereotype they have ever heard and use it against all of the groups except the white group.”

Privilege Walk also contrasts identity groups, but instead of role playing, participants respond to statements about their real lives, such as “You are not followed when you enter a store” and “You will graduate from one of the world’s elite universities.” Those for whom the statement is true must step away from and face the others, who hold hands. This exercise was adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” And BaFa’ BaFa’ is the classic simulation game acclaimed as “an ‘Ah-ha!’ learning experience,” that “initiates immediate, personal change.” BaFa’ BaFa’, according to Frederick R. Lynch in his book The Diversity Machine, is supposed to:

generate culture shock, to impart the feeling of confusion, frustration, and even foolishness that comes from trying to figure out the unwritten rules of a new society—as presumably minorities, women, and immigrants must learn to negotiate the invisible white male rules of corporate America.

My Facilitating Diversity Education Experiences class did mention BaFa’ BaFa’ and Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood, plus two more called Barnga and Star Power, without any elaboration. Griffith and Segar also humored us by suggesting the possible anatomy of a session, which opens with a “warm-up activity that is fun and in-motion” and ends with “a quote and commitment—remind folks this is not the end, but just the beginning.”

And yes, this is the beginning. I can now teach diversity at the university level (doesn’t that seem an oxymoron?), and have learned nothing new. Now that I’ve completed the course, I intend to start conducting diversity education workshops. I’ll try to take the same approach Griffith and Segar recommend and lead discussions with fair open-mindedness. I plan, however, to focus on intellectual diversity rather than identity group diversity. We’ll have civil debates on controversial topics and we’ll play “Guffaw Guffaw,” a game of wit and hilarity that is won by the player who can produce the most effectively humorous come-back to politically correct bromides.

After all, the online course implied that all you need are a few games and an affable attitude. Griffith and Segar assumed that new professionals don’t need a guide to diversity itself—they learned that in college! Indeed, one of my classmates wrote that what prepared her for her job was “the Pluralism course I had to take in college, as well as other classes in Global Justice, Current Sociological Issues, and political current events classes.” So instead of revisiting the fundamentals of multiculturalism, the online course perched on principles of discussion-leading.

Thus, I came to the end of my maiden voyage in diversity education; the route was local and the water shallow. The ship I had boarded didn’t need complex navigation tools. No one much cared where the winds took us, as long as we floated aware, appreciative, accepting, and advocating. I returned to my landlubber life, disappointed that I’d not learned how to steer the ship, but only how to dress like a sailor. 

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