In many cases, “diversity” has become a code word for hiring or simply acknowledging historically marginalized groups such as people of color or women. This can range from boasting hiring statistics to low-effort activities such as participating in a career fair at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) when looking to recruit talent. Once the diversity targets are met or there are one or two “diversity success stories,” then that is it. Mission accomplished. And, let’s be honest, people feel great when they can spout off statistics that illustrate the strides their workplace or academic institution has made in the name of “diversity.”
But what does that mean for those of us who are the “diverse” population? Belonging and feeling welcomed is another beast that is often overlooked in diversity efforts. I recently got to watch the documentary “Can We Talk? Difficult Conversations with Underrepresented People of Color,” which examines inclusion in the Science, Technology, Math, and Science (STEM) fields and features raw and unfiltered conversations about the struggles of “diverse” individuals on their paths to success.
While the film focused on the experiences of those in STEM, I think the lessons extend to education organizations generally. As “Can We Talk?” highlighted (and as I have experienced personally), many organizations fall short when they believe that diversity is an end-game in itself. The reality is that this is only the beginning. Being accepted or hired into an organization is one thing, but being accepted (and understood) by your peers is another. The film highlighted several powerful themes in the experiences of people of color who were made to feel as though they did not belong. A couple of moments that stood out to me:
“Oh, this is very well-written. Did you have help?”
Days after completing her qualifying exams, these exact words were spoken to an African-American female student studying Neuroscience by her professor. Whether or not that was his intention, the words made the student feel as though she wasn’t competent.
These sorts of disabling expectations can have a detrimental impact on one’s self esteem and sense of belonging, especially if no one else in your department looks like you. Historically, women and people of color have been discredited as being less capable or competent than their majority peers. Clearly, this sort of thinking is still strong and present today. As we work toward being more inclusive, understanding the history of equity struggles for marginalized groups and how impactful words can be is vitally important to creating an inclusive and welcoming culture.
“If this class was important enough, you wouldn’t be making any excuses.”
This was said to a first-generation student who was taking 15 credit hours while working 35-40 hours each week. She often found herself playing “catch up” in her classes because some of the topics covered in her introductory biology class were new to her.
Often, first-generation students are mapping new territory all alone. Because they are the first person in their family to go to college, many don’t have the same support systems as their peers and may even be working full-time jobs to help support their families. As one student in the film pointed out, many people find it difficult to see a situation from a perspective other than their own. Taking the time to have an open conversation with students (or colleagues!) who may come from a different background than you is critical to understanding their challenges and developing solutions.
The experiences of my friends and colleagues of color are all too similar to those featured in the film. We all have faced instances where we have been told, in one way or another, that we did not belong. But what has gotten me through are the formal and informal support systems I’ve built at the different academic institutions and workplaces I’ve found myself in, where I’ve often been the only person of color who was a woman. Being able to see yourself represented in your organization and network with people who have a similar background is vitally important.
It is not enough to simply recruit and hire for diversity; organizations should make serious efforts to support underrepresented groups. Tactics such as creating affinity groups or other safe spaces have shown to be effective. These provide opportunities for individuals to be themselves and connect with others who may have the same experiences as them. Organizations can also take time to understand inclusion strategies. As we look to diversify our workforce and higher education institutions, it is important to understand how to best connect with and support underrepresented groups to create a truly inclusive space.