Diversity courses are not for punishing white students or providing them with a list of do’s and don’ts. They can provide all students with a language for describing their experiences and finding community.
(Editor’s note: This is the second of 11 student essays we’ll be publishing as part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Our Student Voices columnists are high school and college students writing about education issues that matter to them. Know a student with a story to tell about schools? Email Education Lab’s engagement editor, Dahlia Bazzaz: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Being a student at the University of Washington is challenging academically and socially. But being a Black student at a predominantly White institution like the UW is also challenging culturally. It has become second nature for me to smile when people are constantly shocked at my ability to “articulate myself,” or when they run their fingers through my hair. These microaggressions occur so often because the UW and other public educational institutions, are not doing a good job of helping their students understand their identities.
Most students are not taught about how structural inequality impacts our everyday lives. Were it not for organizations like the Black Student Union and courses like Black Cultural Studies, I would have left the UW a long time ago.
Anyone who knows me might be surprised to learn that I had considered leaving UW. I have been very fortunate to spend five years here taking advantage of every opportunity that I could: studying abroad, playing in the band, being homecoming queen, being a radio DJ and writer, not to mention pursuing two awesome degrees. But these experiences don’t negate the fact that I so rarely see other students who look like me.
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The Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity recently reported that this year, the UW admitted the most diverse incoming class in its history. But this year, Black students made up just 2.7 percent of the total undergraduate population. That’s 800 Black undergraduates out of 30,000. Being at the UW was just plain lonely much of the time.
In a 2014 survey by the UW Office of Education Assessment of students who left the UW without a degree, students of all ethnic backgrounds most often said they left because they felt socially alone. The Black Student Union helped me stick it out. It offered me a language to understand what I was experiencing by focusing on identity development. I felt empowered and my experiences were validated through our group meetings. I wish every student could have this experience while in school. One of the top reasons to stay at the UW, students reported, was because they were able to find community with other students.
Here is where I think diversity courses can help. While the UW now requires all students to take at least 3 credits of “diversity,” there are still many preconceived notions about the courses themselves. Diversity courses have never been about getting other (nonblack) students to understand my (Black) experience. It has always been about giving each student an opportunity to name and understand their own personal experiences as they relate to and intersect with other students’.
One of my favorite classes at the UW was Black Cultural Studies taught by Dr. Ralina Joseph. The class was relatively mixed in terms of race, gender and class standing (there were graduate as well as undergraduate students). What I liked most was not only the presence of other Black students, but also that there were nonblack students who were interested and engaged in the subject matter.
For so long I had felt that students who are not Black did not care about issues that Black students cared about. Because I had never seen Black people or Black history in the curriculum of the classes that I had to take as part of my degree requirements, I was relegated to learning about my history through the Black Student Union, or on my own. When taking the Black Cultural Studies course, I was able to engage with students from all backgrounds in a neutral setting and have conversations that stemmed from genuine interest rather than a point of defense or debate.
This is not to say the conversations in those classes were all kumbaya moments. In fact, those conversations were often difficult and painful and I sometimes left class more angry than when I came in, but I always came back the next day and so did the other students and our commitment to trying to understand each other is what made the difference.
As a straight woman, I also had to confront my own problematic beliefs around queerness and listen to rather than debate students who live at the intersection of blackness and queerness. In that learning environment I felt comfortable discussing ideas and experiences even when they may have been difficult for myself or others.
I am not saying that three credits of “diversity” will make any student an expert in race relations. But students need to flesh out their social and political location if they want to be able to engage in a political landscape dominated by identity politics. Especially for students who are part of a privileged majority on campus, diversity education can be beneficial and rewarding. But diversity courses are not for punishing White students or providing them with a list of do’s and don’ts. They can provide all students with a language for describing their experiences and finding community.
I met Dustin Abrahamson, now a UW alum, at a BSU meeting our freshman year. I have watched him go through the process of identity development, and become a trusted ally for racial justice work, over the years.
“As a white straight CIS man, learning about other cultures made me curious about my own [culture],” said Abrahamson. But, he explained, his process of identity development wasn’t painless. “There can be a lot of obstacles [for white people] to engage because you don’t want to mess up. But just be humble and sure of yourself … know that everybody benefits from racial justice.”
A 2011 research review by the National Education Association on the value of ethnic studies education found that, overall, well-designed and well-taught ethnic studies courses are beneficial for students of all races.
“Both students of color and white students have been found to benefit academically as well as socially from ethnic studies,” the review states. “Rather than being divisive, ethnic studies helps students to bridge differences that already exist in experiences and perspectives.”
Meili Powell, a UW senior student in the History department, also had a transformative experience with ethnic studies education As a Chinese American adopted by a White family, Powell said she hadn’t reflected on her identity until she took courses in Asian-American Studies at the UW. She shared her experience at a recent Seattle Public Schools school board meeting in support of a proposal to require ethnic studies.
“With ethnic studies,” she said, “students learn not to blame individuals, but understand societal structures. With ethnic studies students learn to effectively navigate difference and better understand the diverse cultures of our district. With ethnic studies, Seattle Public Schools can fundamentally affirm and empower more students to become agents of change in our community.”
Sometimes I get the sense that White people who want to be good allies support diversity curriculum as if it is a service to poor disadvantaged students of color. But diversity curriculum is about teaching all students the truth about the world and each of our roles within it.
As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Once we understand the truth about who we are as individuals, we can begin to create the community and society we all want to see.
Mayowa Aina is a senior graduating this spring from the University of Washington with degrees in International Studies (B.A.) and Informatics (B.S.), and minors in Music and Comparative History of Ideas. She hopes to become an influential leader in the field of digital media as a content strategist, writer, designer, and producer.