In 1985 when I was fifteen, I arrived to the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. On the first day, I was told to attend a welcoming event. My mother had gotten back on the train to New York City and I was left alone to start meeting people. I was nervous. This was the beginning of a very important opportunity. I had been given a chance to learn in one of the ‘elite’ schools in the country, which would put me on the path to an Ivy League university, and eventually a successful career in society. When I arrived at the location, I found a group of approximately twenty-five male and female African American students and two Latino boys. It was the minority group who had been recruited for having demonstrated academic achievement, many of them in spite of their socio-economic status. Some had gotten in through programs such as A Better Chance and some were well off, but frankly at that time I couldn’t really tell. Then, I could only look around the room confused. There were no Chinese or Korean. No Indians or Jews. No one from the Middle East. No Irish or Italians. No whites. The group looked nothing like the multicultural New York City that was until then my real America. Back then multiculturalism and diversity did not mean just brown people. I felt very alone in that room. I wondered where the other students were and what kind of welcoming they got on their first day. I wondered if I'd have anything in common with these students since these were the only ones I was being told to socialize with.
That was the first time I felt the sting of difference. It was socially constructed and it was real and new to me. In retrospect I realize I was sheltered from the real pain of our segregated history but that sheltering gave me something that so many of us have lost. It gave me a sense of entitlement and belonging, not as a minority but as a citizen of the American community. Much later as an adult, I learned that these types of minority welcoming events come from good intentions. It’s a way for elite schools to create a safe space for children of color. It is part of a philosophy that socialization is just as important as academic achievement. How could the school imagine that this same welcoming event that made so many feel at home would make someone like me feel terribly alone? Was it strange to feel I could relate to any of the kids at the school, without putting heritage or social class before their dispositions? Was it strange that I considered myself first and foremost an honest girl with a precocious personality and that the thoughts in my head or the types of books that I liked defined me more than anything?
How do good intentions around diversity and equity go astray? How might our efforts translate into the perpetuation of the very biases and assumptions we are trying to eradicate? In my case, a school’s good intentions ended up setting the stage for events that pushed me to leave the academy early. In spite of my parents’ supplications, I left Exeter in search of an education experience that would speak to my social and emotional intelligence as well further my academic achievement. I never did go to an Ivy League but Exeter left a fire in my belly that became the driving force behind my life’s work. Building knowledge and authentic praxis for diversity, community and equity. How can we build community and equity in a diverse world through education? What does it mean to engage in authentic relationships in education so that we can transcend the social constructs of difference towards a shared humanity?
According to Kenan Malik, the meaning of words related to diversity and equity are constantly being transformed. Depending on the moment, historical context and socio-political shifts, equality for example becomes not simply about equal rights or possessing the same rights but the right to possess different rights appropriate to difference communities. In other words, what are we talking about-- the right to be the same or the right to be different? Malik argues that political struggles across ethnic or cultural divisions will inevitably fragment our thinking and create more divisiveness because allegiance to certain groups in the socio-political context is often translated to funding, resources and access to opportunity. Cultural identity therefore can enforce the notion of difference because groups will assert their particular identity more fiercely if they are competing for limited resources. What would it look like if we considered a collective language of citizenship?
Helen Trumbull, CEO of Human Facets argues that we are all human but we are all different. We are alike some more than others and have a natural affinity towards those we believe are part of our inner circle. She argues that in fact, the neuropathways we use when we think about ourselves are the same neuropathways we use when we think about those in our ‘group’ causing us to be more empathetic and sympathetic to some vs. feelings of indifference to the success or failure of others. Dr. David Rock describes these same phenomena in his theory of relatedness. The decision that someone is a friend or a foe happens quickly and impacts brain functioning. (Carter & Pelphrey, 2008). When someone is perceived as a foe, different circuits of the brain are used as the body generates a threat response. If that is the case, human beings are dealing with deep neurological shifts when dealing with those they perceive to be different. How does our understanding of neuroscience challenge our thinking as we attempt to build a new language around collective citizenship? How can we build authentic relationships across different groups understanding these challenges? Can we practice a different type of engagement with others in order to mitigate these challenges and in doing so; build a different language and praxis that will impact thinking & perceptions for the next generations?
It seems to me that we are caught in the perennial what comes first, the chicken or the egg dilemma. We’re not sure if the language we use controls our thinking, perceptions and by extension our relationships in a diverse world (which we are now able to see in the functioning of the brain) or if the anatomy of the brain dictates how we develop language and social constructs that determine who and how we build relationships in a diverse world. I think it’s a little of both and we are dealing with a pernicious feedback loop. Fortunately, like all feedback loops, it can be altered.
First, we must heighten our awareness of how language and social constructs impact our thinking and our relationships. When we teach children the language of race (having them check the appropriate box, for example on a birth certificate or school form) then we are wiring them to think this construct called race is a predetermining factor in their identity and how they will be seen, judged, responded to, analyzed by society. After we are aware of these constructs and how pernicious they can be on the psychology of human beings, then we need to make a conscientious decision to engage with ourselves and others differently, outside the confines of socially constructed identity frameworks and language choices that constrict our thinking and by extension behavior. This is where we find the ultimate ‘paradox of diversity.’ We want to intervene in the face of injustice which to some extent requires an analysis of racial disparities and yet, the very fragmentation of this process is what perpetuates for each generation similar conditions.
How do we begin to develop and advocate for language and practices that value a shared humanity, a global citizenship, a universal belonging? One of the strategies I suggest in my work is to provide the members of your school or organization with multiple ongoing opportunities to engage safely with individuals outside their traditional social networks so that they can consider how deeply we are interconnected and united. By deconstructing homogeneous groups and providing forums for meaningful, authentic exchange we can begin the arduous journey of finding something greater than our socially constructed identities. Only with access to multiple perspectives at all levels of an organization can we can begin to transform our language and practice for authentic community building.
Each of us can look back at our early educational experiences and find a story about belonging. Belonging is one of the fundamental human needs for survival. Each shared experience leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our higher purpose as a human race. We have arrived at a new and exciting stage in our human development where we have access through technology to people from all walks of life, each of us eager to share and debate issues that are so important to all of us globally. The paradox of diversity is not new but our understanding of it is evolving at rapid speeds. Approach diversity work from an interdisciplinary, holistic, loving perspective. Don’t be afraid to discuss the power inherent in language and diverse leadership, the social structures that perpetuate difference and the need to mix it up to reinvent and innovate how we relate to one another. Dare to make a difference by prioritizing multifaceted groups and giving a voice to the voiceless. These are the types of initiatives that have the most merit, the ones that emphasize our common humanity and a shared vision around a sustainable, equitable global community.