Home Newsletter Teaching with Diversity in Mind
Teaching with Diversity in Mind

Shelley L. Smith, Ph.D.


The first critical news events I was aware of as a child were centered on the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi and Alabama. At the time, I remember thinking how horrible “those people in the South” were. As a child in grade school, I was appalled at the violence and discrimination I saw on our black and white television, and consoled myself that I lived in a place where “that kind of thing” never happened. It didn’t occur to me, of course, that I had really never met, or even casually encountered a black person in 1950s suburban Portland, Oregon. My encounters with domestic and international diversity, and the resulting confrontations they engendered with regard to my own racism and ethnocentrism, advanced in fits and starts over the next 50 years as it did with many suburban whites of my generation.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just an artifact of my generation. As our definitions of diversity expanded in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, our ability to retreat, disengage the issues, and deny that diversity and its deep connection to our identities was more than a surface phenomenon, simply became less obvious. The short distance we’ve traveled as a culture with regard to these issues was never clearer to me than it was 10 years ago when my husband and I took my six-year-old, suburban-raised niece to the Children’s Theater in South Minneapolis. “Things are different here,” she said. “In what way?” I asked, thinking the style of house and the density of the population were the likely answers. “There are so many people with dark faces,” she responded.

As a person who has spent the last twenty years studying and teaching intercultural and diversity communication, I have learned a reasonable amount about articulating the breadth and depth of "difference" as it occurs and is "played out" in my classroom, yet I was blindsided by how the basic need to expand the experience of my own family had escaped me. It was a stunning reminder that one of the perks that those of us with white privilege enjoy is the freedom to disengage the process when we are too busy, too tired, or too overwhelmed. This can lead to blind spots for even the most well-meaning of us. Most importantly, it jolted me into reevaluating my experience of, and teaching about, cultural difference.

Confronting Racism, Privilege and Difference

Even though we are constantly confronted by the grisly reality of our own racism as a country (witness the color of those who suffered most from Hurricane Katrina), an institution (we have a generally homogenous faculty, staff, and student population), or our own personal failure to stand beside those who are suffering from the effects of prejudice and discrimination, we maintain an amazing capacity to rationalize it away. “But I'm not a racist!" is the all too common defense espoused by both liberals and conservatives, and it is a dangerously naïve statement. Denying the existence of a problem tends to perpetuate it ad infinitum. And because we are all dealing with a couple of centuries worth of baggage around the issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference, we are all to some degree racist and ethnocentric. In reality, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a constant state of empathy in which we actively engage in trying to shift our frame of reference to include another's experience. 

I realized more clearly how the overlapping complexities of race, class, age, gender, culture, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability, and learning styles always remain easy to ignore, difficult to grasp, and painful to understand. It is easy to ignore because understanding another’s experience requires effort to develop and vigilance to maintain. It is painful because these issues are intrinsic parts of our self-concepts, experiences, and our interpretation of “reality.” It is difficult because these are identity-driven constructs, more often "performed" than examined. We do who we are, and it takes incredible effort to step back and see the cultural matrix in which we are enmeshed.

Beyond its difficulty, or perhaps because of it, I have come to realize that these are not just abstract or critical constructs to be dismantled and understood intellectually. They require moments of gut-wrenching guilt, pain, and as a colleague has said, "profound disappointment," not just with others, but with ourselves. And so, over time, I have come to realize that in order to teach about diversity, I must be engaged in the process of constantly deepening my own awareness, not just about the issues at hand, but about my own knee-jerk assumptions about the world.

My understanding and acceptance of the impact of my own cultural and racial connections is an ongoing process that has most recently become fused with the issues of privilege and entitlement. I have understood that I live in a culture where the fact that I am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, well-educated, middle-class female gives me a level of comfort and access that is not shared by others for whom these descriptors do not so readily apply. Peggy McIntosh (1988, p. 2) identified this phenomenon years ago as

… an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.

Certainly these are personal privileges, but more importantly, they are part and parcel of the very fabric of our society. For those of us in the mainstream, the embedded nature of privilege makes it easy to perpetuate and extremely difficult to see. After most of us have come to grips with the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism, we finally confront the issues of power and privilege, because these realizations leave us nowhere to hide. We are no longer innocent and are required to make changes in the very things that have given us the comfort and privilege we enjoy.

And finally, I have recognized that perhaps the greatest of the privileges I enjoy is that I have a choice as to whether to engage these issues or not. If I become tired or comfortable or disillusioned, I can easily turn a blind eye, sit back and take refuge in my complacency. Perhaps precisely because I never asked for this privilege, I have only gradually become aware of the responsibility I have to use it appropriately, and of the effort that it takes to choose to do so and not retreat behind a comforting wall of "normalcy."  

Engaging in Transformative Education

Because I wrestle with these issues on both a personal and a professional level daily, I have gained increasing empathy for my students and colleagues, and the struggle that they are undertaking to confront diversity. While I strongly believe that this is a task well worth taking on, it remains necessary to pause and consider the implications of our efforts. To become aware of these issues at a visceral level involves engaging in transformative education at its most profound because it changes the way we actually see and interpret the world around us.

Mezirow (1991, p. 167) describes perspective transformation as:

...the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings.

Teaching for transformation raises a number of ethical issues. If, as educators, we seek to change individuals, we do so at the risk of disrupting their existing relationships with their social and cultural systems, and thus, their emotional and psychological structures. Educators need to fully understand the power of such a transformation, because we are pulling the metaphorical rug from beneath the feet of our students, and we need to provide them with hand up after they’ve landed.

I have learned that the two hardest things for mainstream whites (students and faculty alike) to learn are: (1) that they have a culture, a race, and an ethnicity; and (2) that these are defined as much by the social construction of "race," class, ability, sexual orientation and power as they are by cultural background and heritage. Those who are defined as members of "nondominant" groups – people of color, new immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, GLBT identities, and those from lower class backgrounds – already know this. It is a fact that they live with on a day-to-day basis, because NOT knowing it would exponentially increase the risks that are already inherent in their day to-day interactions with mainstream people and institutions.

The implications of these two issues are deeply intertwined, but involve different levels of awareness. The first may be difficult to grasp, but it is not generally a "guilt producing" realization. The second requires a deep confrontation with the issues of privilege and power and the awareness that the things which make the lives of those in the dominant group “easy” or at least coherent, also make the lives of others difficult, and sometimes painful and incoherent. That realization can and usually does produce the kind of guilt that can be paralyzing or push people back into an escape mode as they seek to avoid confronting the issue all together. People need to be supported through this phase. Guilt is useful emotion for getting people’s attention, but it serves little purpose in the long run. Ultimately, they need to learn to use the privilege they have to help create places that are safer for everyone. In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes we make as institutions is to make a commitment to hiring a diverse workforce, but not to creating the structures and awareness necessary to support the people we recruit. Avoiding this pitfall requires developing a conscious and consistent sense of mindfulness about the experiences of those around them especially when one is not required to do so.


As I struggle with these issues, I keep in mind four basic things:

  1. Seeing culture is like seeing air – it is simply there, so familiar, so much a part of our environment that we assume it is ALL that there is. Breaking through that perceptual barrier takes effort and time.
  2. We are all racist, sexist, and ethnocentric. Not because the majority of us is inherently bad or "narrow-minded," but because we are all bound by our own perceptions and experiences. Truly understanding the experiences of others whose lives are and experiences are different from our own does not come naturally. It requires an effort that, for all intents and purposes, demands that we unlearn thousands of years of socialization whereby we learned to define ourselves in terms of communities where we defined ourselves by our similarities.
  3. Fear permeates this experience. For mainstream students this can mean fear of facing guilt and loss of privilege. For students from nondominant groups, it is the fear of exposure, of being highlighted as different, of bearing the burden of "explaining themselves” to others.
  4. Finally, embracing diversity is a journey of discovery that will likely continue for one’s entire lifetime, and that is perhaps the most exciting and rewarding thing about it. There is so much to learn and so many people to learn from that one never really “arrives.”

Beyond being the navel gazing ramblings of a recovering ethnocentric, how does this relate to our practice as faculty in higher education? At a time when internationalizing and diversity are key issues facing educators in the 21st century, we are all facing some pretty steep learning curves around these issues. As individuals and as teachers what can we do to move this process forward? Knowing full well that this is not an exhaustive list, I would give the following guidelines:

Be compassionate with your students, your colleagues and yourselves. Understanding diverse perspectives and ultimately being able to act on that understanding in appropriate and effective ways as teachers and as human beings are tasks that are not easily performed. People stumble and occasionally take truly amazing pratfalls on their way to competence. And ultimately, because the possible manifestations of diversity are endless, the possibilities of ignorance are also endless.

Listen to and observe what’s going on with culturally/racially/gender-different students and colleagues both in and outside of the university setting. It is easy to be unaware of other people’s realities and it requires effort to thoughtfully explore them.

Always be willing to learn from those around you. Look for patterns. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. Seek more than one resource, and never assume anyone can speak for a particular identity group.

Remember that “whiteness” is an identity and “mainstream” is actually a culture, but because they serve as the “background” around which other races and cultures are evaluated, they tend to be invisible to those of us who share in those identity groups.

Seek learning resources, information and examples that are representative of other cultural perspectives and underrepresented groups to include in all of your courses. Question the things you may initially take for granted and encourage your students and colleagues to do the same.

Be an ally. By their very definition, “minority” students and faculty should not be solely expected to carry the burden of explaining or defending diversity or social justice. We are all impacted by injustice and enriched by the diversity of ideas and perspectives we encounter. To assume we “can’t speak with authority” because we are mainstream, is to some degree a form of intellectual laziness. We certainly wouldn’t accept a student telling us “I can’t do/understand this because I’ve never encountered it before.” We would expect them to make the effort, find and examine expert resources, and be willing to try and fail in the process of learning.

The bottom line here is that compassion, patience, constant self-examination, and honesty on the part of an educator are vital in this process. It is part of a life-long journey whose end can only be imagined.


McGonigal, K. (2005) Speaking of Teaching, Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University - Spring, 14 (2).

McIntosh, P. (1988). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. Working Paper 189. Welsley College.

As Jeff Goldblum’s character so aptly observed in the movie The Big Chill, “Rationalizations are more important than sex. You can go you’re whole life without sex if you have to, but try to go 10 minutes without a rationalization.”
© 2015 University of Minnesota Duluth
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Last modified on 06/24/13 02:03 PM
University of Minnesota Campuses
Crookston | Duluth | Morris
Rochester | Twin Cities | Other Locations