I’ve been visiting campuses across the country talking about my book, Learning to Be Latino: How Colleges Shape Identity Politics, which details the experiences of Latino students at three distinct types of campuses: an elite liberal arts college, a public research university and a regional public university. I’ve had the opportunity to talk and listen to many more Latino students, on campuses and in colleges of all different types. These conversations have affirmed what I learned from my research -- that Latino students’ experiences are not monolithic.
Students on some campuses raise concerns about the failure of their institution to achieve equity through representation among students, faculty members and administrators. Other students want their institution to support pre-existing ethnic studies departments and Latino cultural student centers, as well as to create centers that meet the needs of first-generation and undocumented students.
Across these different colleges, however, one issue comes up again and again: the sense these students have that their non-Latino peers have little to no knowledge or understanding of who Latino students are and what it means to be Latino. Students view some of their peers and even professors as lacking the literacy needed to understand Latino experiences. Inevitably, when students voice this grievance, I ask how their campus addresses diversity and inclusion. In particular, I question them about their institution’s curricular diversity requirement, if indeed it has one at all.
I advocate for a core curriculum designed to create racially literate individuals. Such a curriculum would alleviate some of the stressors that Latino and other historically underrepresented students face.
A curricular diversity requirement can be contentious. Some conservatives have labeled this a liberal ploy to indoctrinate students, and some have even called for the removal of such diversity requirements. For example, in 2017, California State University chancellor Timothy White issued an executive order that would have eliminated certain requirements of ethnic, gender, women’s and cultural studies classes at California State University Northridge. In response, student activists and faculty members at that institution mobilized to protect the requirements and triumphed.(Note: A spokeswoman for the Cal State System said students at all 23 campuses take at least one course that focuses on diversity in either general education or as a separate graduation requirement, and that the system's commitment to diversity in the curriculum has not changed.)
The University of Connecticut, where I teach, structures its requirement similar to that of many other institutions, requiring six units as part of the general education requirement. UConn’s policy reads as follows:
“In this interconnected global community, individuals of any profession need to be able to understand, appreciate and function in cultures other than their own. Diversity and multiculturalism in the university curriculum contribute to this essential aspect of education by bringing to the fore the historical truths about different cultural perspectives, especially those of groups that traditionally have been underrepresented. These groups might be characterized by such features as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identities, political systems or religious traditions, or by persons with disabilities. By studying the ideas, history, values and creative expressions of diverse groups, students gain appreciation for differences as well as commonalities among people.”
The description captures a breadth of identities and acknowledges the role of history and the distribution of power. At the same time, however, there is no consistency in the diversity knowledge students gain, as they can choose which two courses they will take to fulfill their diversity requirement. I teach one such class at UConn, Latino Sociology, an upper-level course, where I am able to teach only a sliver of the historical and social processes that shape Latino experiences in the United States.
In fact, allowing students to choose the courses they will take undercuts the very purpose of a curricular diversity requirement. It ensures some students can graduate without really understanding the historical processes that led to the uneven distribution of power and resources across different groups, let alone the processes that create the groups themselves.
In the case of race, if the diversity curricular requirement is truly to foster racial literacy, then a core curriculum must be institutionalized and mandated for all students. I draw here on Robin DiAngelo, who has written so compellingly about “white fragility,” or the tendency among white people to receive “any suggestion of racially problematic behavior as a personal blow.” DiAngelo attributes this fragility to racial illiteracy or the lack of awareness of many white people that their “race has meaning and grants unearned advantage.” It is this kind of illiteracy that leaves so many white students on campus unable to understand, for example, why blackface is such a big deal or why their campus needs different cultural centers.
In order to develop racial literacy for whites and other groups, we need a base level of knowledge. For starters, students should understand the historical processes of inclusion, exclusion and subjugation of different groups. Students should know demographic trends in today’s United States and have a grasp of the social forces driving those trends. They should know the history of activism on the part of different racial and ethnic groups for rights and resources. And, at minimum, students should know if a movement led to the creation of ethnic studies and cultural centers on their campus and, if so, when it occurred and what the grievances were.
In the era of “fake news,” colleges can play a pivotal role in alleviating racial problems. What might this look like in practice? It could take the form of a first-year seminar that would be taught synergistically and in an interdisciplinary fashion with economists, political scientists, sociologists, historians and health-care experts. Bringing together such a range of perspectives would help students to learn about the distribution of wealth, income, homeownership and debt across ethnic-racial and social class groups, and how this distribution affects the lives of individuals in terms of education, occupations and health.
To be sure, some people will raise concerns about making these courses mandatory. But research has shown that students who do not enroll in diversity courses may develop more racially biased attitudes, while those who enroll do not.
Crucially, the course would aim to ensure that students’ understanding of “the average American experience” expands beyond and decenters whiteness. It is time for campuses to take the responsibility of teaching affluent and majoritarian students about inequalities off the backs of undergraduates from underrepresented groups. Campuses should institutionalize and fund this practice.
Institutional curricular policy matters. Administrators must be brave, make this a requirement and invest resources in these curricular changes.