Thursday, June 04, 2009

Diversity That Matters: A Commitment to Social Justice

Introductory Bio

Annette Harris Powell is an assistant professor of English at Bellarmine University where she teaches courses in writing, advanced rhetoric, and Caribbean literature. She is in the process of developing a community-based literacy project with La Casita Center, a community group working to create a bridge between the Latina community and the larger community. Prof. Powell’s research interests include identity, writing and place, discourses of cultural preservation and community-based conservation. She has published “Access(ing), Habits, Attitudes, and Engagements: Re-thinking Access as Practice" in Computers and Composition. “Roots and Routes to Agency: Space, Access and Standards of Participation” in Labor, Writing Technology and the Shaping of Composition in the Academy, and “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Students Developing Their Own Critical Consciousness” in Practice in Context: Situating the Work of Writing Teachers. Powell also writes about Caribbean rhetoric and gendered perspectives in literature. Her current project examines identity, memory, and place in relation to the lived life and culture of the Gullah-Geechee communities of the Sea Islands.

Blog Entry

I teach at a university with a mission grounded in the Catholic Intellectual tradition of faith and reason and focused on the examined life as a way to encourage students to be discerning. We also teach students to become critically engaged in social justice issues that support global sustainability as it embraces “cross-cultural and inter-faith awareness and diversity.” Yet, I frequently get the following student responses to readings:

“I really can’t relate to this experience; it’s very different.”
“These kinds of things don’t really happen here.” Or,
“I don’t really understand why they live like this.”

Commentary such as this is nothing new to me—majority students, in particular, have always been somewhat resistant when asked to reflect on the limits of their own experiences. They continue to be skeptical of, or indifferent to diversity and multiculturalism. This view is doubly complicated by the apparent shifting dynamics of race in this age of “change.” There is growing popular discourse about the imminence of a post-race era. Increasing numbers of both majority students and students of color are now more resistant to “diversity talk,” often asserting that they see no need in dredging up history—“it’s a different day.” The civil rights movement was successful—there is so much more access today. Both groups of students see themselves as cosmopolitans—that is, they have traveled outside their neighborhoods and have become “citizens of the world.” It’s curious, though, that the large majority of these would-be travelers have yet to venture outside of their own zip codes. Anthony Appiah, in his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, rehabilitates the notion of cosmopolitanism as “connection not through identity but despite difference” (135). We are all, he says, “citizens of the world,” and as such “we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association” (my emphasis xix). I agree with Appiah, that we need to engage conversations across boundaries and that cosmopolitanism is about interest and engagement, but we must also be mindful that cosmopolitanism presupposes mobility. The student responses above are indicative of this mobility; they embrace the simplistic allure of choosing what is “real” to them. Additionally, it is not enough to engage difference; we must also interrogate the uneven distributions of power that reproduce difference.

Though it’s difficult to say with certainty what accounts for the above responses, economic and class demographics are, I suspect, one indicator. Recently, some scholars (See Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism and Catherine R. Squires’s Dispatches From the Color Line: The Press and Multiracial America) have critiqued multiracialism and its attendant ambiguity as “bridges between the races.” Squires argues that “this ambiguity is about exoticism and intrigue, providing opportunities for consumers to fantasize and speculate about the Other with no expectations of critical consideration of power and racial categories.” This re-positioning of race by many Americans contributes to the conception of race as fluid and neutral. This view is acontextual and ahistorical—race and its underlying societal meaning can be manipulated so that “choice” (the decision to belong/not belong, to be fluid, to move in/out) will maintain the current paradigm of inequality. In the May 29, 2009 issue of The Chronicle Review, Rainier Spencer, a professor of anthropology argues that “what popular wisdom tells us is the supposed twilight of how Americans have thought about race is merely a minor tweaking of the same old racial hierarchy that has kept African-Americans at the bottom of our paradigm since its very inception. Multiracial ideology simply represents the latest means of facilitating and upholding that hierarchy—while claiming quite disingenuously to be doing the opposite” (B5). I would suggest that students and scholars in the field question this facile conception of race.

Such conceptions of race often transfer to discussions of various texts that are situated across and within national spaces, suggesting a tension between the global and the local. Although some majority students have a few opportunities to get first-hand experience in local communities with marked social, cultural, or material differences, many do not. Quite often this leads to students’ superficial engagement with texts that present different perspectives and encourages them to think about privilege in terms of gender, race, culture, ethnicity, class, sexuality. Most of my middleclass (and majority) students are often unable to recognize their privilege as distinct. While some acknowledge a few advantages, privilege continues to be invisible. I remind them that privilege is not always a dirty word. We all are privileged in some way, and that although we might not recognize all its variations, most of us possess some. My intention is not to neutralize the idea of privilege. Rather, I’m suggesting that because there is resistance to discussions of privilege, we need to think creatively about how we might bridge the gap and communicate this concept. Most college age students, especially those at private colleges, assume that there are no barriers, that everyone is included, and that everyone has the same degree of access and mobility. Thus, in an increasingly global culture, majority students see the problems (e.g., poverty in post-colonial Caribbean and African communities, the role America expects new immigrants to play, and assimilation) plaguing minority and immigrant communities from a distance. Although I remind students that these “texts” are connected to institutions and power, that they are never neutral, many otherwise critically perceptive students continue to read these cultural problems unreflectively, unable to apply what Wendy Hesford calls a “critical localism.”

In her 2006 PMLA article “Global Turns and Cautions in Rhetoric and Composition Studies,” Hesford argues that “the contradictory effects of globalization, its polarizing as well as democratizing functions, suggest the need for a critical localism … that recognize[s] the ongoing cultural work of ‘local’ spaces” (790). This is important in an increasingly geo-political world where students will need to be able to read, to contemplate, and inevitably, to cross unfamiliar borders in order to interpret and understand the multiplicity of cultural tropes and commonplaces they will encounter. But this abstract border-crossing is one that many students, already unengaged by the readings, find difficult to do, or simply unnecessary. On several occasions, majority students have noted that they have a roommate of another ethnicity or culture whom they describe as relatively assimilated. In this instance, like the cosmopolitan traveler, the student has decided what is “real” to him. The differences they encounter in the written texts we read or the films we watch, they suggest, don’t seem to apply in the context of their authentic encounters. So, while I believe global sustainability to be an important project, it often provides a cover for many majority students who have never had to question their privilege or the kind of mobility they are afforded. The focus on the global presumes that it is always about out there and the Other, and seldom about us, and so, we don’t have to contemplate the problems of, or work needed in local spaces.

My fear is that such relativistic approaches to global and local cultures (and emerging post-race discourses) encourage a lack of empathy and awareness of the material realities of certain communities, especially local ones. The 2007 movie Lions for Lambs highlights the tension between global and local engagement. In one of Lions three narratives, Robert Redford’s character professor Stephen Malley duels with one of his most promising students about why he thinks this student should get involved and why the student thinks he doesn’t need to. Professor Malley stresses that his students should try to make a real difference in society, to claim their stake in the future. In another narrative two of professor Malley’s students call attention to the concept of “engagement” that the US has been practicing successfully, globally, suggesting it might be a productive tool to use domestically where citizen engagement has been failing. This movie promotes the very same call to action or “civic engagement” with which service learning is concerned and offers a useful example of it.

What does the potential absence of empathy portend for diversity and multiculturalism? While multiculturalism, like diversity, is productive in some ways, it often reduces culture to lifestyle and difference or places emphasis on where one is born—identification. It becomes largely about cultural choice rather than about power, politics, and knowledge or epistemology. As we embrace change, we must also recast notions of diversity and multiculturalism. We need to reconsider the meaning of both: what does it mean now to teach and engage these terms as part of the official discourse of most universities and organizations?

Like guest bloggers before me, I share a strong commitment to diversity, but I also question how diversity often functions—as an empty signifier, or as Vorris Nunley suggests in his blog, what is popularly referred to as “body count diversity.” In both institutional and political contexts, we typically rate our success in achieving diversity by counting and then we celebrate it or check it off our list. While representation is certainly important, most would agree that we have to move beyond thinking about diversity primarily in terms of numbers in order to engender change that is meaningful—that is, change that enables us to make connections between stereotypes and behaviors, and systemic forms of injustice and oppression. I am committed to these goals, and I certainly see them as a necessary component of the movement toward social justice. But discussions in my writing and literature courses that explicitly engage the official discourse of the university indicate a strong need to re-consider what diversity and social justice mean, especially in the context of a small private university setting. Although institutional demands and expectations for students encourage social justice, diversity, and global sustainability, there is a noticeable gap between this discourse and students’ commitment, ability, and readiness to fully participate in this discourse. As I work to engage students in the university’s mission, I have had to acknowledge that the promise of the official discourse is often unrealized. Students’ (in)ability to participate in the institutional mission raises several questions: 1) What does it mean to apply social justice principles in the context of the classroom? 2) What should this look like? 3) How do we get students to engage more critically?

Official discourse that promotes diversity and multiculturalism must be concerned with social justice. Service learning, if done properly, is the most likely means of achieving social justice because it provides students not only with opportunities for writing but also with opportunites to work directly for and with communities (See Thomas Deans’ Writing Partnerships: Service Learning in Rhetoric and Composition). Students need realistic experiences in action—theoretical, often abstract, applications in the classroom are not enough. They need to study theories and systems along with people whose material lives are affected by those systems. While diversity is an important goal, social justice and action that promotes it as a knowledge-making project, and contributes to change must be the ultimate objective. Despite Nedra Reynolds critique of service learning as “assigned encounters with difference” (9) in Geographies of Writing, service learning offers productive and potentially transformative opportunities for learning and writing in the community (see, for example, Linda Adler-Kassner’s Writing in the Community). Writing about their service provides students with a space to work out their ideas and their experiences—what they do and learn in a particular community. This is indicative of writing as thinking, writing as a situated activity, and writing as a way of creating knowledge. For a provocative discussion of diversity and writing see Phillip P. Marzluf’s 2006 CCC article “Diversity Writing: Natural Languages, Authentic voices,” and Margaret Himley’s and Christine R. Farris’ 2007 response to Marzluf in the CCC Interchanges. For an example of a diversity writing program, consult Syracuse University’s Writing and Diversity in a Globalized World at (

While some universities talk about social justice primarily in terms of curricular engagement others go beyond service and volunteerism, suggesting that it is a sustained commitment to getting students involved in the community, helping them make sense of what they are experiencing while encouraging them to reflect on these experiences critically. This is a space where diversity discourse can be very productive for students, teachers, and administrators. Social justice via service learning encourages students to ask certain questions of themselves: How do they define social justice? How does community collaboration change the face of social justice for community partners and students? How does this change the contours of the borders they cross? What do they see as their role as engaged citizens, based on what they learn in the classroom and in the community? These questions can feed into their writing assignments, into the way they think about composition, and the way they think about official discourse. Most importantly, students are given the opportunity to raise questions about how or why material realities exist as they do and to consider how they might respond productively. The latter model of social justice presents both opportunities and challenges; nonetheless, this is the kind of civic engagement students need in order to be able to enact social justice in real world contexts and to be able to participate in diversity that matters—that has lasting material impact, locally and globally.


The Anti-Racist said...

Your article was like refreshing rain to the vast intellectual drought I see around me every day. I hear, and read, that those of us who promote diversity and support a racial dialogue are at best ignored, and at worst vilified for self-agrandizement.
I have argued that the recent banking scandal has hurt non-whites disproportinately at a time when economics and politics were experiencing some semblance of equality in those groups. The economic downturn is, at least partly, because of institutional discrimination by the banking industry, the real estate markets and by the govenrment itself by not monitoring discriminatory practices.
There is much work to be done to even get the discussion started. Whites don't want to talk about it. They are afraid, they have entrenched attitudes which they cannot, or will not, overcome. Until we get whites and non-whites to talk to one another nothing will change and all talk will be empty, idealistic rhetoric. Thank you for this article, it made my day and I have linked it on my blog site

Anonymous said...

No kidding. I agree with Anti Racist. Yes, fear, entrenched attitudes, self-agrandizement, institutional discrimination, thinking that one knows what is best for another, making assumptions not based on any kind of self-reflection = tyranny.

This country spends more money on wars and incarceration than any other country in the developed world. The U.S. ain't so developed after all. During a time of deep recession (depression?), when we need to be more compassionate and caring people, the group-thinkers (non thinkers) are using the fear of job loss and money to extort and censor others.

Socialism for the big business. Competition for the rest of us who does the work and creates the wealth.

The next wave of fascism will be wrapped in the the U.S.A. flag.

I use anonymous to protect my identity, because we do not live in a democratic society anymore. Voices are being systematically shut down. Now it's group think. This is another way to control.

- calvin lee - said...

Can you point me to Vorris Nunley's blog? I'm interested in his mention of "body count diversity", and the only relevant entry according to google seems to be your particular post.

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