What Diversity Isn’t

Something that educators love to tout, particularly white educators, is the diversity that they have in their schools; specifically, the diversity of its students.

I remember in a previous district where I worked, a guidance counselor, when talking about the pros of the district, mentioned the diversity of the district. She highlighted the student body configuration of Black, white and Latino/a students as proof of the diversity of the school. It was a point of pride for her.

Meanwhile, most of the teachers, professional staff and administrators were white – as they tend to be in every school district. When I mentioned that, she looked puzzled. She clearly hadn’t considered that. She went on to say, “yeah, that’s true too, however…”

But there was no, “however.”

A diverse school isn’t one where Black, white, and Latino/a students each are a third of the student population… not when the vast majority of the adults are white. It’s a “clever” reframing to equate diversity with the students and not include the adults. Funny enough, it is within a public district’s power to select the adults that work in a district versus the students, who attend because they live in the district.

White educators dare not mention secretarial and custodial staff when talking about diversity, but I digress.

That colleague isn’t the only white person I’ve ever heard say that. They don’t realize that’s not what makes a school and/or district diverse… Well, maybe they do.

Diversity is the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups within an organization or institution. However, diversity for most organizations is performative. When it comes to a diverse student body, the diversity is done for the school. The school doesn’t have to do any real work.

What’s the real work? Creating and maintaining a culture where a diversity of thought, perspective and experience shape policies and procedures that value, protects and honors all individuals at all levels.

Diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t real work.

The United States often refers to itself as a melting pot. America believes that it is Gumbo – a dish by the way is an African dish – but rest assured America only desires the hot dish to consume without the fiery trials that cooked the dish, but I digress. The reality is that the United States is really a dinner platter container built with spacers so that the foods in the platter don’t touch.

You know that friend or relative that insist that their food doesn’t touch on their dinner plate. They don’t want the juice from the collard greens and the sweet potatoes “corrupting” the fried chicken or the baked macaroni and cheese. In our schools, white educators don’t want diversity spilling over into the other areas of the platter, like policy making. In that case, diversity can stay where the students are, while teachers, professional staff and administrators can remain largely homogenous to white folks.

Truth is getting a little juice from the collard greens or sweet potatoes on the chicken, mac and cheese or cornbread never hurt anyone. In fact, that fusion of flavors is what makes the meal. Same way diversity amongst various constituencies within the school/district community is what makes a school/district better functioning, better prepared to handle challenges, and better equipped to empower children, so that they can meet challenges presented to themselves and their communities.

Sadly, some white educators only desire diversity amongst its student body because they’d rather not share the responsibility of an organization with individuals who may think differently than them; individuals of a different background, with different experiences and who were raised differently.

Public schools are traditionally white institutional spaces, that is spaces whereby the instituting of policies, procedures and postures are established by and for the benefit of white people.

Even if Black people and other folks of color enter the institution, there is little to no opportunity to change the norms dictated by policy and procedures because they’re already set and so just because you welcome Black or Latino/a bodies that does not necessarily mean that you welcome their minds – that goes for the students as well. 

Schools who really value buzzwords like diversity and equity and justice ought to examine themselves; they may believe themselves to be allies, but they’re nothing more than mere performers.

An amalgam of Black, Brown, white, Latino/a, indigenous, Asian, biracial, multiracial children make for an awesome student body where culture and information can be transferred amongst everyone. That makes for a rich environment. But what does it mean if the only diversity is amongst your students and not amongst the adults?

What does it mean if there is diversity amongst your students and staff, that you’re not valuing their perspectives, knowledge, and expertise; what does it mean when you don’t apply the wisdom that they provide you in an educational context?

Certainly, the United States has an oft repeated history where white people were seen as and positioned to be great visionaries and arbiters that moved our nation and society forward. The truth is that the land was taken through genocide and the labor, culture, and fortitude of Black folk moved the nation forward. What is also true is that our perspectives and experiences inform our work as educators, as is true for Latino/a, Indigenous and Asian educators. What we bring to our work will (and does) help move schools and districts forward.

We’re good for more than conversations about race and racism. We’re more than disciplinarians to the children of our community so they can “learn” from white teachers.

If you really value diversity, display it throughout the school and/or district. Be sure that the diversity of your faculty and professional staff reflects that of the nation and more so, no matter the demographics of your student body. Be sure that there is also a diversity of thought that impacts policy and procedure.

Schools and/or districts must refrain from leaning on the white lies they tell themselves. It hurts them, it hurts Black and Brown children even worse.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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