Defining “Normal”: Double-Edged Diversity Initiatives in Private Schools

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Private School News//

May 6, 2015

The death of Freddie Gray not only revitalized discussions of race relations in America, but also engendered the re-emergence of the “diversity dilemma” at private-independent schools around the country. Many schools work hard to promote diverse campuses, believing that a homogeneous community of staff and students will stagnate without infusions of fresh perspectives and diverse experiences.

Still, diversity extends beyond race or income level. We found a TEDx talk given by education consultant Derrick Gay that brings a refreshing perspective to an old topic. Listen to his talk, and see if any of his experiences echo your own.

[What follows is an edited selection from the talk transcript.]

… There’s one word that, more than any other word, can somehow galvanize a community, that can be affirmation for people, that can galvanize people to work together. At the same time, different members of the same community experience feelings of divisiveness and anger to the same word. And that one word, ironically, is diversity. It’s what I think of as the paradox of the double-edged sword of diversity.
Why is it that we’re so uncomfortable with acknowledging difference? It’s similar to the person who has the big pimple in the center of his or her forehead that everyone notices, but no one dares to mention.
Diversity means “difference,” and if diversity means difference, it suggests that I [alone] cannot be diverse. Diverse needs an external point of reference. No individual can be diverse, which makes “diverse” this nexus to which everyone has equal claim and everyone has equal benefit.
The problem is that we don’t think of diversity as difference; we think of diversity as different.
When I was a Director of Diversity, I would give open houses with other school faculty and administrators, and I’d often get the diversity question. A man once asked me, “School X has 15% diversity! School Y has 20% diversity! How much diversity do you have?”
I said, “We’re proud to say that we have 100% diversity.” After I resuscitated him, he asked how that was possible. “Well sir, every student at our school is different than every other student at our school.”
It’s possible that this man was imagining an entire school population that looked like me [black]. So we know what “diverse” looks like, but we don’t know what “normal” looks like. That’s a bit more difficult, a bit more subtle.
Think about people telling stories, or when you told a story in which there was a man who crossed the street—or an Asian man who crossed the street. People may talk about attending a wedding, or they talk about attending a gay wedding. What’s normal?
Often what’s normal—and what’s frustrating about this—is that normal is not named. It’s assumed to be generally understood.
I think it’s urgent that we shift this mindset of envisioning diversity as this preconceived notion of a particular type of person, and rather as a goal: A goal that will add value to society and to individuals.
Admittedly, I feel that we’re horrible at articulating what “goals of diversity” are. To be sure, increasing diversity is not a goal of diversity. (At best, it’s a strategy; at worst, it’s circular reasoning.)
I would argue that perhaps the goal of diversity is excellence and equity, that we strive to foster a society that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what you have or what you don’t have, no matter whom you love or whom you worship—or choose not to worship—that you can, quite simply, flourish.

ISM has invited Derrick Gay to run a new two-day workshop, The Double-Edged Sword of Diversity, as part of this year’s Summer Institute offerings, to better teach administrators how to build effective (and inclusive) diversity initiatives at their campuses. We invite you to register today and join the conversation.

Additional ISM resources:
Private School News Vol. 12 No. 9 Racial Diversity at Sundance Film Festival
ISM Monthly Update for Business Officers Vol. 11 No. 3 Should You Implement Diversity Training?
ISM Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 11 No. 3 Ask Michael
ISM Monthly Update for School Heads Vol. 11 No. 5 Public Schools Recruit International Students for Income, Diversity

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 38 No. 12 Defining Diversity in Your School’s Culture: Implications for Planning
I&P Vol. 38 No. 13 Your School’s Statement on Diversity
I&P Vol. 38 No. 13 Tuition Discounts and Your School’s Sustainability


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