Inclusion Beyond Appearances

A controversy over a social media post at the University of Missouri should encourage other institutions to reconsider how they and their own departments are operating, writes Courtney N. Wright.

November 8, 2019
 
 

Two weeks ago, the University of Missouri apologized for a racially insensitive social media post intended to support the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s diversity and inclusion week. The university’s apology followed significant social media criticism highlighting the post’s tone, which reinforced stereotypes -- black student athletes were reduced to their demographic identities (e.g., “I am an African American woman”) while those of the white student athletes emphasized career aspirations (e.g., “I am a future doctor”). This PR nightmare is one of others since student protests against the university's racial climate received national attention in 2015, ultimately resulting in decreases in enrollment.

Seeing this all play out, some leaders of other higher education institutions may feel a sense of relief or even a bit self-congratulatory because they haven’t had to deal with similar controversies. But they should think twice. Such attitudes keep them from ensuring that they are, in fact, making productive advancements toward inclusion. Instead of focusing on the speck in the University of Missouri’s eye, we would do better to use this event as a catalyst to (re)examine the logs in our own. In this essay, I offer guiding questions as starting points for (re)considering how similarly problematic behaviors may be operating in our own departments and institutions.

My observations of the Mizzou incident and guiding questions below draw upon several of my roles in higher education. As a consultant and facilitator, I assist organizations and education professionals in identifying and addressing challenging issues -- such as incivility, conflict, inclusive leadership, communicating across differences -- and engaging in the difficult dialogues necessary to achieve transformative outcomes. I am also a black woman faculty member who works with and within an institution that is grappling with its own diversity and inclusion concerns.

To what extent do underrepresented students and faculty members in your department or institution have agency to: 1) choose how they want to be represented and 2) address insensitive representations without reproach?

The controversy at Mizzou might have been prevented if the social media staff had sought input from black members of the campus community. Being inclusive is not necessarily a panacea. Including diverse perspectives is always better than excluding them, but the burden of addressing overtly insensitive representations must be a shared responsibility. It can be difficult and exhausting for underrepresented individuals to confront representations that devalue their individuality. These challenges can stem from several factors including their tendency to be highly visible yet highly invisible and consequently, not fully seen or accurately heard. Administrators and colleagues should educate themselves on these issues and make this process less taxing.

In what ways have individuals associated with diversity and inclusion initiatives in your department or institution (un)intentionally engaged in behavior that is exclusive or insensitive?

Some of the actions intended to support inclusion are actively undermining rather than advancing efforts to cultivate inclusive campus climates. The Kansas City Star perfectly captured this irony in the article “Mizzou Athletics Tries to Celebrate Diversity in a Tweet, Manages to Offend Everyone.” How can our institutions experience significant progress when some of the perpetrators of problematic behaviors are affiliated with diversity and inclusion initiatives? Confronting such insensitive behaviors can risk alienating potential allies.

This presents a dilemma for the underrepresented individuals trying to survive and thrive in higher education. How can they contribute to initiatives designed to inform, evaluate and advance inclusion efforts when those same initiatives may be responsible for marginalizing them further?

Although everyone should be invited to the meal, we all aren’t equipped to cook. There are often unskilled cooks in our diversity and inclusion kitchens -- a phenomenon I often encounter in my work. As the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion in higher education has become more popular, political and (in some ways) profitable, we have not been diligent in vetting who contributes to these efforts. Consequently, individuals associated with diversity and inclusion initiatives may lack qualifications or have problematic backgrounds or questionable motives. For instance, they may be well-intentioned novices seeking to learn, may have previously taken insensitive actions toward underrepresented individuals or may be seeking to repair their reputation or gain social influence.

The involvement of unqualified or ill-suited individuals reduces credibility and makes ineffective and insensitive outcomes inevitable. The leaders and others involved in these initiatives should be individuals who have done work in areas such as cultural competency or confronting bias and are clearly qualified, professionally and personally, to engage in difficult dialogues and address the structural issues needed to enact campuswide change. These individuals should not be silent bystanders but vocal advocates who consistently speak against issues of bias and exclusion.

In what ways is maintaining appearances of diversity and inclusion inhibiting your department or institution from making real progress?

Projecting images and employing rhetoric associated with diversity and inclusion is a common strategy through which departments or institutions manage impressions of their campus climate. Certain recruitment materials and office decor can help maintain the appearance that your department or institution is more diverse and inclusive than the demographic data or experiences of underrepresented populations might suggest. Using outdated images of diverse students who have long since left the institution, stock photos of diverse individuals unaffiliated with the department or institution, and strategically (mis)representing demographic data can also help institutions appear more diverse and inclusive than they actually are.

Some people will defend projecting appearances in these ways as an innocuous means of giving diverse students the impression that they are welcome on our campuses. But in reality, this approach brings unsuspecting students of color into a potentially hostile environment. Such efforts can also give people who have the power to change and alter the reality of the campus climate the false impression that all is well, thus preventing them from offering much-needed assistance.

Considering the magnitude of problems affecting our campus climates, some may understandably perceive these examples of maintaining appearances trivial. But how can we expect our departments and institutions to effectively deal with systemic issues if they cannot display integrity, respect and honesty in their representations of underrepresented populations on campus?

Empty gestures concerning diversity and inclusion have a real impact on underrepresented students and faculty. Faculty and students may raise legitimate concerns about their department or institution’s integrity and commitment to cultivating an inclusive climate. Departments/institutions that simply keep up appearances misrepresent what is required to achieve diverse and inclusive climates while demonstrating to their underrepresented populations how little they are willing to invest. Underrepresented students and faculty may feel expected to play a supporting role that gives credibility to the institution’s performance of a diverse and inclusive climate. Placing this burden on them ultimately makes them complicit in their own marginalization and devaluation.

Colleges and universities should resist the temptation to maintain appearances over doing the difficult work to improve the experiences of marginalized students and faculty. Through my consulting in this area, I have found facilitating effective strategic planning and assessment processes that intentionally interrogate these issues and the efforts to address them to be a productive method to begin propelling departments and institutions toward transformative change.

Bio

Courtney N. Wright is associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As a consultant and conflict resolution practitioner, she assists organizations and education professionals with managing difficult interactions, communicating across differences and developing inclusive leadership and strategic planning practices. She researches in the area of interpersonal communication and is writing a book about diversity and inclusion in higher education.

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