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Diversity, Visibility and Invisibility in Higher Education

Diversity, Visibility and Invisibility in Higher Education
By Rhett S. Jones

The article “Class Matters” by Patricia Valdata on the research of Skidmore College professor Dr. Janet Galligani Casey (see Diverse, Nov. 3, 2005) was informative but raised as many questions as it answered. Though, to be fair, the article did not claim to provide answers. It instead offered pointed, probing questions about how colleges that are seemingly committed to diversity have managed to consistently ignore issues confronting working-class students. A kind of deliberate “double invisibility” seems to be in effect, as the institutions do not wish to see these students as targets of their diversity efforts, and the students do not wish to be seen as any different from their mostly middle-class peers. It appears class remains the great American unmentionable.

There is a lot of invisibility going around these days. And universities that are serious about diversity are going to have to address it. Back in 1958, when I began my undergraduate education at the University of Illinois, the institution — like most other colleges of the time — was skilled at making the visible invisible. As one of the very few Black students at the university, I was extremely easy to spot in class. But for the most part, my professors tried their best to pretend I wasn’t there. Their courses were supposedly color-blind, but actually were aimed at their White students and rested on White sensibilities and assumptions. It wasn’t difficult to understand why, considering the lily-White complexion of the campus.

Things are different now. Colleges are working diligently to enhance the visibility of what was once invisible. But sometimes they overstep their boundaries. In 2001, the University of Wisconsin found itself embroiled in controversy after it was discovered that a Black student had been digitally inserted into a photo of White students on an admissions application to give the impression of a diverse campus. The admissions director authorized the fabrication, which was then sent out to high school students. These days, students are routinely asked to provide detailed information on their ancestry so that colleges can demonstrate that they are meeting their diversity goals. The point is clear — measurement matters.

But as the “Class Matters” article demonstrates, there are many students sitting in our classes who are not getting the support they need from administrators, staff and faculty. Many of my bi-racial students have expressed frustration at continuously being lumped into one group or another. They say fellow students often assume they are Black, even if they have a White parent. The onus falls on them to declare themselves, but regardless of what race they claim, the other students often insist they are Black. Ironically, many of these students do think of themselves as Black, but feel the responsibility to speak up when other Black students vilify all Whites.

Like the working-class students in Valdata’s article, homosexual students are also invisible minorities. Since sexual relations are still conducted, for the most part, in private, many gay students ask why they should have to declare their sexual preference to the world. These students are not naïve, so they understand the political and psychological ramifications of coming out. But there are advantages in being visible as well. Many gay students recognize the clout created by a unified homosexual organization on campus.

Physically challenged students confront a similar dilemma. A student who uses a guide dog or is confined to a wheelchair is going to be visible, regardless of his or her wishes. But what about a dyslexic student or one with a hearing disability? In those cases, visibility is largely an individual decision. If a student does choose to make him or herself visible, are there programs in place to help him or her?

There are lots of problems yet to be resolved by those of us who would like to make colleges aggressive leaders in the effort to treat everyone in our diverse, complex, ever-changing nation fairly. These problems cannot be solved simply by counting the Brown, Red, Yellow and Black faces and congratulating ourselves on how well we are doing.

As “Class Matters” makes clear, there are millions of working-class students who prefer to remain invisible. And they are joined in their quest for invisibility by millions of other students who would just like to fit in. We need to support them by including them in our efforts to build diverse colleges. Devising support programs for persons who want to remain invisible will not be easy. Perhaps a good place to start would be the Golden Rule?

Dr. Rhett S. Jones is a professor of history and Africana studies at Brown University and the research director of the Rites and Reasons Theatre.

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