Moving From Diversity to Justice
March 23, 2021
The private school system in this country was not created for the intellectual growth and academic achievements of Black students. Exclusion has been part of its genesis story. How do independent schools honestly name and hold this truth while also striving to offer a strong academic program that sees, appreciates, and nurtures the fullness of Black children’s humanity? Furthermore, how do they name and honor the truth that attending school without the constant threat of potential harm being done to students’ psyches should not be a privilege only afforded to some?
Last summer, social media accounts and petitions highlighted the pain and trauma that students from historically marginalized and oppressed groups, particularly Black students, endure at independent schools. As an educational equity consultant, I found myself on the receiving end of numerous calls and emails from public and independent schools looking to begin or further their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As I engage in these discussions, one of my recurring questions to school leaders is: Why do you do this work?
The Problem With DEI Messaging
One major flaw in the way that many schools approach DEI is the messaging around it: It often implicitly centers the needs of white students. Diversity is posited as a way to prepare students at predominantly white, affluent schools to engage with a multicultural world by equipping them with tools to effectively interact and work with people from different backgrounds than their own. While the benefits of learning and working in a diverse community are well-reported—and I, too, find value in enumerating those benefits—I find that approach as a first line of reasoning for committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion to be insufficient, inauthentic and, much like the school systems themselves, largely rooted in white supremacy.
Highlighting the benefits of diversity, which include enhancing creativity and innovation, to largely white student bodies as the primary reason to talk about race and anti-racism in schools and to integrate more curricula focused on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is once again centering and privileging the white experience. Independent schools that take this approach when considering the need to bring in more BIPOC students are essentially using these young people as disposable, interchangeable tools to build the schooling experience that they believe will best benefit their white pupils.
If educators are going to discuss the benefits of diversity for white students, let’s state that developing an anti-racist, anti-oppression framework and skill set will help students to access the fullness of their own humanity and liberation, recognizing that all of our fates are intertwined, and we can never be whole if we are unable to see and honor the humanity of others. However, I urge us to not even jump to that part of the conversation too quickly, and not because the experiences of white students are unimportant—but because it may allow us to skip over the painful truths of our past and our present to instead simply revel in an idealized vision for our future.
Shining a Light Inward
The term “diversity” generally casts an outward gaze, which often has a perceived downward slant. Diversity far too often is about looking at “the others.” As much as conversation rooted in this mindset may ostensibly claim diversity as an asset, if you listen closely, there are generally undercurrents of deficit thinking attached like assuming students of color come from low-income backgrounds or have so-called achievement gaps.
Justice, in contrast, shines a light inward, compelling a school to question its own policies, practices, and beliefs that have contributed to a lack of diversity. It then implores school leaders to right those wrongs and unearth systems that have led to exclusion, marginalization, and oppression and replace them with systems that are co-constructed with the very individuals schools profess a desire to serve better. Essential to the justice process will also be the repairing of harm that has been caused within the community. With an active commitment to internal justice in place, schools can then, with integrity, do the work of preparing all students to be advocates for justice within and beyond the school walls.
As a former English teacher, I believe in and understand the power of words, and yet I will not quibble with semantics. The truth is that terms such as “diversity” have whatever meanings we assign to them. Some conceptualizations of diversity reveal a short-sighted and harmful focus on simply bringing in a greater number of students of color. Others directly connect to tandem definitions of equity and inclusion that evidence a school’s commitment to not only bringing in students from varied backgrounds but also ensuring that they are supported once there. The latter interpretations have the potential to provide the foundation for environments where students are free to bring their full selves in order to contribute to the creation of culturally responsive and sustaining learning spaces. I encourage those who are delving into this work to clearly define what each of your chosen terms means to you; this includes garnering input from all constituency groups such as students, staff, families, board members, etc.
Schools also need to be able to answer the questions of why you want “diversity” and to what end. If the answer to the question of “why you want diversity” does not include an honest acknowledgement of who and what your school has historically been, including why there has not been greater diversity up to this point, then you are still missing the mark. If your answer to the question of “to what end” does not include a vision focused on the inherent brilliance of BIPOC students being cultivated and celebrated, then you are missing the mark.
Moving from discussions of surface-level diversity to sincere commitments to justice must begin with an honest assessment of where you are and how you got there, ideally including the use of restorative practices to initiate collective healing from the traumas of the past. It also will likely involve serious, intentional work in decolonizing your collective minds. This includes continually unpacking and unlearning paradigms rooted in whiteness, challenging preconceived notions of how brilliance and excellence manifest themselves, and therefore how they should be both nurtured and measured, and resisting assumptions of cultural deficits that serve as easy rationalizations for inequitable outcomes. In so doing, you will undoubtedly be met with both internal and external resistance from those who fear what the quest for justice will entail and where it will lead. However, you will also be met with an opportunity to envision a future for your school that is no longer limited to who you have historically been but instead genuinely serves all the children and families you bring into your community.