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Teaching Diversity at a Historically Black College

By Beverly Guy-Sheftall
Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women's Studies, Spelman College

Exploring diversity at historically black institutions may seem to be an oxymoron, but only because of the way in which curriculum transformation projects have traditionally been conceptualized. These projects frequently assume an institution whose students and faculty of color constitute a minority on campus. A fundamental premise of these efforts to bring about a more inclusive curriculum is that white students and faculty have not been prepared to deal adequately with an increasingly multicultural world.

Spelman College, a historically black college for women, began its curriculum transformation efforts with a Ford-funded mainstreaming women's studies project in 1983 followed by another Ford-funded project to infuse multiculturalism in the liberal arts curriculum. As in other diversity projects, we addressed issues of race/ ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality, class, and gender.

A number of assumptions behind our project, however, provide a different framework that might help other historically black institutions in their diversity efforts. We assumed that:

  • Students at "minority" colleges need an inclusive curriculum, as do students at "majority" institutions.

  • Intolerance of difference characterizes many racial/ethnic groups, including African Americans, in ways both different and similar to white Americans.

  • Abhorrence of one oppression (e.g., racism) does not necessarily result in abhorrence of other "isms" (e.g., sexism and heterosexism).

  • Racial/ethnic groups are not monolithic. Therefore, analyzing issues of difference within groups is imperative.

  • The students at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are far more heterogeneous than they may appear. Diversity issues need to be addressed in a variety of contexts on campus.

  • While race and class may be dealt with adequately at HBCUs, there are silences about other diversity issues, especially gender and sexuality.

  • The curriculum at many HBCUs, like the curricula at "majority" institutions, continues to be Eurocentric and male-centered, and excludes (or treats inadequately) the histories and cultures of American Indians, Chicano/as, Asian/Pacific Americans, Arab Americans, and even African Americans in some cases.

Despite their history of exclusion and commitment to providing a quality education for students who have been marginalized elsewhere, HBCUs have been conspicuous by their absence, with a few exceptions, in national debates about diversity. A number of questions which are usually absent from diversity projects are crucial at HBCUs: Are there distinctive diversity issues which emerge because of our particular sociocultural contexts, special missions, unique histories, nature of our student bodies and faculties? Why is it important for "minority" students to be exposed to an inclusive curriculum, and how do we define such a curriculum? Are minority groups more tolerant of difference and less likely to internalize dominant cultural values about other groups? What kinds of changes would need to occur in our various institutional cultures to enable a more effective engagement with multicultural issues on our campuses? Some of these questions, though not frequently asked, are equally relevant at "majority" institutions.

I am confident, based on what we learned at Spelman over the past two years, that diversity dialogues need to be expanded to include the voices of persons from special mission institutions. Students at black colleges also need to be prepared for the multicultural world of the future. They must learn better how to deal with difference--in the larger world and within their own backyards. They must be able to analyze the ways in which racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism are linked. They need a curriculum infused with content and pedagogical strategies from ethnic studies, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, and disability studies. Until the inclusive curriculum is a reality at all colleges and universities, our work is far from over.


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