Dimensions of Diversity: When You Teach, You LearnBy Julianne Malveaux
Sometimes when I look at the landscape of my life, I’m frustrated. There is always something that should be done, but for some reason or other, can’t be done. There are seemingly endless agitations, countless bitter setbacks and overwhelming odds. Too often, I know frustration better than the lines on the back of my hand. But when the frustration is too challenging, even strangling, I have had a light come shining through fog, a chance to count my blessings.
One of my blessings of 2005 was to have been appointed the Johnnetta B. Cole Professor of Diversity and Inclusion at Bennett College for Women. It has been a blast working with phenomenal students whose minds have been open to learning about our diverse world and the way we navigate it. Why should Black women be at the forefront of a movement around diversity, one might ask? Why shouldn’t we be, especially if this notion of inclusion is a core value for us.
One major focus in our diversity efforts is simply “feeling” the issue of inclusion. I think that concept may be especially challenging for some African-Americans who, at the periphery for so long, chafe at the notion that other people are now chomping on “our turf.” If we are to make a legitimate case for diversity and inclusion, it can’t just say that Black folk need to be brought to the table. We must also champion the right of inclusion for other minority groups — Latinos, Asians, American Indians, gays and lesbians, women, the disabled community and so many others.
Does this dilute the real claim that any of these groups, especially African-Americans, have about an America that has exploited and peripheralized us? I say not. But the equal employment argument is different from the affirmative action argument. And the affirmative action argument is different from the diversity argument. The diversity argument is different from the wealth gap/reparations argument. But while all of these conversations are different, I’m sure most of us realize that they are also all connected.
Recently, several Bennett Belles reminded me that we can embrace diverse sisters without giving up any of the issues we care about. One of their Bennett sisters, sophomore Robin Gray, is a member of the First Nation, the term favored in Canada as opposed to “Indian” or “Native Canadian.” One day, Gray informed the class that November was National American Indian Heritage Month. I, like most of my students, was completely unaware. We talked about the things we could do to make sure that Bennett students had the opportunity to know more about American Indian culture and the many ways it is intertwined with Black heritage, history and culture. We were challenged by the fact that Robin came to us mid-month, toward the end of the semester, when time, energy and resources were limited. And yet my students supported their First Nation sister in presenting a campus program at the end of the month, a program in which many Black women had roles — as ushers, moderators and program coordinators. They brought information, energy and a passion for diversity to the table.
I’m proud to identify the young women by name who stepped up — Candice Allen, Janae Burns, Patrika Evans, Shaunte Smith, Nikole Wiley and Patricia Mohammed. These women chose to get past the notion that Black folk own diversity. They stepped up to show that diversity belongs to everyone.
When you teach, you also learn. You live, you grow and you are humbled at the power of your words. As I’m sure every teacher can attest, it’s a heartwarming moment when you see your students recognizing, understanding and internalizing the things you’ve been saying. My students helped remind me that diversity is something more than a slogan or a marketplace thing, it is a challenge of the heart. It is about sitting around a table and wondering why it looks the way it does. It is about opening doors, pulling up chairs, having a candid conversation about inclusion.
My students at Bennett College got the diversity message in a way that so many of their teachers and leaders have not. African-Americans lose nothing by being champions for diversity. Indeed, we gain when we demonstrate that our philosophy of inclusion has energy and integrity.
Embracing diversity does not mean abandoning the legitimate issues that Black people have to deal with, and the clear oppression and discrimination we have experienced. But it does mean that we want the same inclusion for others that we want for ourselves. I knew that. But my students reminded me of it in a powerful and poignant way. When you teach, you learn. All of us have some learning to do as we recognize and appreciate the changing demographics of our nation.
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