October 30th, 2006

A New Kind of Diversity Requirement

Since the 1980s, many, perhaps even most, colleges and universities instituted diversity requirements for undergrad students that required them to take at least one course about racial/ethnic minorities. Twenty or so years later, the question some are asking is, have these courses served their purpose and are they still useful? In answering that question, Williams College is overhauling their diversity requirement:

Students had to take a course about a minority group or a non-Western group. Anything that met that basic criterion could count. . . . The requirement was so vague that it didn’t have any real meaning, [Williams professor Chris Waters] said. . . . A lot of our international students wondered what on earth this was about, and many of our non-white students viewed it as tokenism. Why would our minority students need to take such a course?” . . .

So after a year of deliberation, the Williams faculty voted to . . . require that the diversity requirement be about more than some “other” group. The “exploring diversity” courses can’t just be about another group or culture, but must “include an explicit and critical self-reflection on and immersion in a culture or people,” according to the college’s new policy. . . .

Courses about gender and sexuality could qualify. Courses about various Western societies could qualify. Courses that are critical of the groups they explore could qualify. . . . Burger said that he is particularly pleased with the way the change shifts the goal away from learning some facts about another group to learning to understand other people’s ideas and approach to life.

It sounds like Williams is probably onto something here. American society has changed and it’s not just about Whites and Blacks any longer. There are many dimensions of diversity these days so it makes sense that other underrepresented and/or understudied groups, even White ones, deserve some attention.

At the same time, I hope that such courses and diversity requirements in general keep in mind, and in fact retain, the central notion that there are power dynamics and inequalities in American society that still have not changed. These dynamics are still responsible for the various mechanisms of inequality, injustice, and discrimination that continue to negatively affect many groups, particularly racial/ethnic minority groups.

These issues still are important and significant and still need to be emphasized and studied. Yes, it’s nice to learn about Whites in the antebellum south, but let’s not forget that Whites in those situations still enjoyed a significant power advantage over other members of American society, and in many ways, continue to do so today.

In other words, it is true that American diversity is not just about race/ethnicity any longer -- but it is still about power and inequality. We should never forget that.

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