The Road to Hell: Why Many Still Get Diversity Wrong, Even When They Try

I'm a writer, but I'm also a teacher. To be precise, I teach high school humanities in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our state has dismal statistics when it comes to education, and I entered the teaching profession last year to try to be part of fixing this problem.

Others have been trying to fix the problem, too, including those behind a landmark consolidated lawsuit Yazzie v. the State of New Mexico and Martinez v. the State of New Mexico. Argued in 2018 by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund for the plaintiffs, the lawsuit said a lack of diversity, inclusivity and access for poor, Native American and "Hispanic" students in our state (which does not have a white majority population) was the root of our poor educational outcomes. The plaintiffs won, resulting in a statewide mandate to fix entrenched problems stemming in part from humanities curricula that focused on the literature of dead white guys, and history told from their point of view.

A new law here, House Bill HB02 from 2019, mandates greater diversity with the following language: "The public education department shall monitor and evaluate the extent to which schools purchase and use instructional materials relevant to the cultures, languages, history and experiences of culturally diverse students." While this law and the new mandate have the potential to start to heal the white supremacist approach taken by most of the teachers and administrators in New Mexico's public schools till now, the wording and strategy are flawed, leading to a non-inclusive implementation that I believe will never fix the problem.

Let me explain, by sharing with you the exact wording my predecessor chose in their report to the state last year, a report I am expected to replicate this year. Let me know if you can spot the problems. If not, don't worry. I'm about to tell you.

This approach is problematic, for a number of reasons.

PROBLEM THE FIRST: The presumption that works by American Indian or Hispanic authors or reflecting a Native American or Hispanic experience are "for American Indian students" and "for Hispanic students" ONLY is absurd, and racist, and nothing but the continuation of the very "othering" that has been marginalizing people of color for centuries.

No teacher in her or his right mind, upon assigning Catcher in the Rye, would declare said book to be "culturally relevant for white students." Rather, the novel is taught as a universal work that holds relevance for all students. This is because white supremacy operates under the belief that white people are the only default human beings whose experiences are important, universal and relatable to all other people.

To do diversity right, you must afford this same default human status to all writers, to all histories, to all human beings. The inclusion of works by American Indian and Hispanic writers and lessons reflecting history from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized cannot be only for those students whom a white power structure has assigned the status of "other." To do so only perpetuates a narrative of otherness.

Yes, we must include works by and about American Indians and Hispanics, but we must not designate these efforts or works as being only "for" children of color, any more than we would propose the works of William Shakespeare as being only for British immigrant kids. Allow writers of color and experiences of the marginalized to be part of the universal story, because we are human beings. Our works are not supplemental to the "real" curricula. Integrate them into the cannon, seamlessly, and believe them to be meant for EVERY KID.

PROBLEM THE SECOND: The secondary presumption that just because a student is classified by the US Census as American Indian or Hispanic that they will necessarily be culturally distinct from any other person in the United States.

As any halfway sober sociologist will tell you, culture is learned, not genetic. When you ascribe to a human being "cultural" traits without actually getting to know them, you are practicing, very literally, the art of prejudice.

Many American Indian and Hispanic students, for a variety of reasons, are not culturally distinct from their white peers. To single them out and declare them "different" is absurd in such cases. To expect or require them to have learned cultural distinctions that are not, in fact, part of their lives, to single them out in a teacher's mind or, worse, in class and out loud for these "differences," is insane.

This does not mean the inclusion of American Indian and Hispanic writers and perspectives on history are not warranted; they absolutely are. But the assumption that your student "of color" must identify with them is dangerous, and speaks more to the white power structure's ongoing presumption of difference, as said assumption has been the basis upon which all racist practices, policies and institutions have been constructed.

Teach diversity because human reality is diverse; but do not presume any individual student will by their nature or reality adhere to any particular cultural norms or stereotypes. Allow students to be who they are, without expectations.

I see this same wrongheaded but well-intentioned approach to "diversity" all over the entertainment industry, too. Scrolling through Netflix, I came across a very jarring new category, called "Black Stories." Do those human beings classified by Netflix as "black" have stories that are only important or relevant to themselves? If so, why doesn't the network presume that films or series featuring all or mostly white casts ought to be labeled as "White Stories"? The answer is the same as the problems with inclusion of diverse materials and stories in public education - Netflix still presumes "white stories" to be unpredictable, universal, and about default human beings, relatable, therefore, to all. They do not make the same presumption about stories about any other sort of people. I assume there are no "Hispanic Stories" or "American Indian Stories" channels on Netflix because there simply not enough such products to warrant them.

Diversity is not about supplementing a default, universal white experience with exotic Others; it is about allowing all of us to represent, well, all of us.

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