Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 8, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 2

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Lasting Legacy of Brown
University of South Carolina Upstate:
A Model of Excellence and Diversity
Fifty Years after Brown v. Board of Education: Reflections from an Activist-Administrator
Faculty Involvement
A Search for Deep Diversity in the Communication Classroom
Making Diversity News
The 1954 Brown Decision: Fueling the Torch of Liberation for Asian Pacific Americans
Brown v. Board’s Legacy and Contemporary Black Higher Education
Student Leaders Reflect on the Legacy of Brown
The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice: Education and Empowerment for an Engaged Citizenry
Diversity at Middlesex Community College
Books on Brown v. Board of Education

A Search for Deep Diversity in the Communication Classroom

By Heather E. Harris, assistant professor of communication arts and director of multicultural affairs, Villa Julie College

Heather E. Harris

Heather E. Harris

In The Unfinished Agenda of Brown v. Board of Education (2004), contributors such as Cheryl Brown Henderson and Gary Orfield argue similar points. In his chapter, “Renewing Our Commitment,” Orfield notes:

We need to begin a new national debate like that which followed the Brown decision, and address issues of a much more profoundly diverse society in which 80 percent of the population lives in complex, interdependent, but deeply stratified metropolitan areas.

One means of addressing such a challenge is to begin a conscious and continuous dialogue that moves beyond the boundaries of race and includes ethnicity and the cultural dynamics that result from particular group identification. Our quest should be for deep diversity.

Deep diversity functions beneath the superficial limitations that often shape conversations on topics such as race or determine the numerical representation of ethnic groups within a particular institution. Through deep diversity, we seek to understand an individual’s values and beliefs as a benefit of complex interaction with others. Specifically, we seek a better understanding of the whole person. Where deep diversity exists, the idea of co-culture becomes fundamental. Co-culture refers to the culture of institutional members and presumes the validity of all voices in that setting. A co-cultural lens emphasizes the search for the commonalities in our humanity while seeking to navigate, understand, appreciate, and respect the differences (Harris 2000).

It was this search for deep diversity that prompted my dissertation research on student ideas about culture at a metropolitan northeastern four-year college with one of the most ethnically diverse student bodies in the United States. This article and the student quotes it includes are drawn from that larger study. With the exception of the faculty, the students in those communication classrooms had a “United Nations” flavor, representing diverse cultures, languages, and perspectives.

According to Barbara Hueberger and Diane Gerber (1999), a well-educated student is cognizant of multiple realities, interpretations, and points of view. The students in this study emphasized the differences in the physical and outward characteristics of their classmates and themselves when explaining diversity. They were relatively unaware of the ways in which the cultures stemming from their various ethnicities were being communicated in the classroom and in every minute of their lives. Overall, the students viewed diversity simply as difference, took the complex notions of culture for granted, and desired more intercultural interactions.

Communication was selected for study because it was a required course for most of the students. Furthermore, verbal communication serves as a primary transmitter of culture. The communication course and its classroom composition provided a wonderful opportunity for intensive student interaction around culture. A discussion of culture allows the dialogue to move beyond a reliance on social constructs of race, which can sometimes perpetuate dehumanizing systems by narrowly categorizing human beings into a hierarchy based largely on skin color. Relying on these constructs tends to erode rather than foster conversations that might lead to mutual understanding, appreciation, and respect. Harold Barclay (1986) and Edward Hall (1981) suggest that access to an individual’s worldview is gained from an awareness of a variety of cultures and related cultural manifestations such as beliefs, practical knowledge, language, social structures, organization, and technology.

Diversity as Difference

“When many people from different cultures come together—that for me is diversity.” —Israeli female

“I guess I would say a variety of ethnic and regional backgrounds. I’d say culture to me also goes to the . . . class and sexual orientation.” —European American male

I found that students overwhelmingly viewed diversity simply as difference. Few images of similarities were associated with the term. Perceptions of difference hinged on things students could see, such as skin color or race, or surface cultural elements, such as clothing, food, or religious practices, rather than on the learned and often unconscious assumptions about themselves and their classmates that guided their lives. Their understanding reflected the focus currently placed on diversity in our institutions, which often centers on festivals, speakers, art, music, and passive cultural exploration as opposed to active engagement.
Bloomfield Curriculum Transformation

Colleges and universities around the country have incorporated social history into powerful courses focused on the civil rights movement, the Freedom Summer of 1964, and the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. One campus-wide approach to these topics, developed by Bloomfield College in New Jersey, teaches students about diversity, democracy, and inclusion by highlighting significant periods of U.S. history.

Bloomfield’s history department developed the Freedom Summer Project in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the social action movement of black and white college students who volunteered to travel through Mississippi in 1964 to register black citizens to vote. The Freedom Summer Project is a comprehensive set of interdisciplinary courses and cocurricular activities planned for 2004 and 2005.

Activities across the campus encourage students to think and learn about the power of active citizens to bring democracy to life. Several interdisciplinary courses have been developed to advance these experiences, such as the Freshman Seminar, courses in the Writing and Analysis Program, the Sophomore Core on Social Responsibility, and a humanities course, “Cultural Encounters in Early America,” which examines the lives of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans in colonial America. Other activities related to the initiative include media projects by creative arts and technology faculty and students and historical reenactments by various student groups.

Bloomfield College is one of seven institutions participating in the New Jersey Campus Diversity Initiative, which seeks to promote intergroup understanding, reduce prejudice, and foster inclusive communities in the state of New Jersey. The Bildner Family Foundation has partnered with the Association of American Colleges and Universities in this three-year project. Click here for more information.

More information about Bloomfield’s
Freedom Summer Project can be found here.

While a Eurocentric cultural perspective currently dominates our educational institutions, we can adopt a more expansive framework, or “Paradigm of Inclusiveness,” in our learning environments (Harris 2000). This paradigm affirms all co-cultural experiences, including the Eurocentric perspective. By removing cultural dynamics often perceived as “other” from the realm of the strange and the abnormal, the paradigm encourages coexistence at the level of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Within this inclusive framework, perceptions of inequality as well as equality are able to come forth from all concerned because the historically silenced are given voice.

Culture Shaping Culture

“In one of my classes in intercultural communication they asked everyone to bring in something from your culture, and everyone brought in an item. . . . I was baffled. What do I bring? Like slave chains? Honest to God. I was like—what is my culture?” —African American female

“Just in our group alone, it was amazing. . . . We had five people in our group—five different cultures—chosen at random—and that diversity really helped us with our project. . . . It gave me a better understanding of how each culture communicates among themselves and with each other.” —Filipino female

A Filipino student expressed surprise that her grandmother and the grandmother of a Haitian group member shared similar traits and beliefs. After they had interacted with a student from another culture, students often realized that their culture was constantly evolving. The contact tended to jolt them into awareness of their own identity as they sought a more multifaceted understanding of their classmates. It was as if they saw themselves more clearly in a mirror without realizing the mirror had a subtle and distorting surface film.

Wanted: A Higher Degree of Intercultural Interaction

Students appreciated the guided intercultural interaction provided in some communication classrooms. It was through that contact that they began to uncover cultural similarities. Many stated that in most of their classes they did not have the chance to explore and understand their classmates. The interaction gave them cultural skills they could use outside of the communication classroom.

Intercultural competence is urgently needed in the United States. One of the best places to develop this skill is in college. Colleges and universities are places where students who have most likely been segregated throughout their elementary and secondary years come together, often for the first time. We cannot afford to have this opportunity to cultivate cultural understanding slip away.

The Paradigm of Inclusiveness provides an ideological space where we help ourselves and our students engage in a complex dialogue about world cultures. Communication courses are not the only ones that have the potential to facilitate intercultural learning and communication across differences for college students. The examination of culture and intercultural dialogue can become common elements of many kinds of courses. Students can be encouraged to investigate not only the meaning of terms like culture, race, and diversity, but also how to seek a better understanding of their own lives and their present and future place in the world. Such new capacities are a byproduct of Brown, which presented the opportunity to expand the conversation beyond race to the influence that ethnicity and culture have on ideas of democracy, citizenship, and social equity.

Works Cited

Barclay, Harold. 1986. Culture the human way. Calgary, Alberta: Western Publishers.

Hall, Edward. 1981. The silent language. New York: Anchor Books.

Harris, Heather E. 2000. The perceived influence of culture and ethnicity on the communicative dynamics of the United Nations Secretariat. PhD diss., Howard University.

Hueberger, Barbara, and Diane Gerber. Strength through Cultural Diversity. College Teaching (Summer 1989): 107-113.

Orfield, Gary. 2004. Renewing Our Commitment. In The unfinished agenda of Brown v. Board of Education, ed. William Cox et al. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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