Beyond Diversity: Dismantling Barriers in Education

Beyond Diversity: Dismantling Barriers in Education

Catherine A. Hansman

Virtually all educational institutions today can be described as culturally diverse. Although the degree of diversity certainly varies, predictably members from different cultural groups are present in these institutions as students and employees. Goals and mission statements for educational institutions discuss pluralistic notions and hiring practices that reflect the numbers of diverse faculty and staff hired. However the presence of these cultural groups is not sufficient to ensure that they will be extended power and privileges by those currently holding power and privilege in institutions and in society in general. Despite claims to the contrary, the barriers to understanding diverse cultural groups are still existent in institutional cultures where the subtleties to our racist past persist. The purpose of this paper is to uncover the issues involved in institutional racism and provide an understanding of the next steps of moving from understanding institutional racism to dismantling barriers in education.

Virtually all educational institutions today can be described as culturally diverse. Although the degree of diversity certainly varies, predictably members from different cultural groups are present in these institutions as students and employees. Goals and mission statements for educational institutions discuss pluralistic notions and hiring practices that reflect the numbers of diverse faculty and staff hired. However, the presence of these cultural groups is not sufficient to ensure that they will be extended power and privileges by those currently holding power and privilege in institutions and in society in general. Despite claims to the contrary, the barriers to understanding diverse cultural groups are still existent in institutional cultures where the subtleties to our racist past persist. The purpose of this paper is to uncover the issues involved in institutional racism and provide an understanding of the next steps of moving from understanding institutional racism to dismantling barriers in education.

In order to comprehend the barriers and the broader economic, social, and historic factors of institutional racism within the United States, it is first necessary to understand the “types of minority status” (Ogbu, 1993, p. 484) in this country. Ogbu explains that minorities in the United States who compare relatively well with their European American counterparts are those “closest to their ancestral cultural practice in socialization and social orientation, not those closest to the Western model” (p. 484). In other words, minorities who immigrate to the United States because they perceive that they will be able to achieve greater economic opportunities and political freedom fare better than those minorities who were brought here involuntarily, such as Africans brought here through slave trade. Ogbu speculates that because newer immigrants may not understand how racism and racial prejudice influence how the dominant group thinks about them they therefore operate psychologically apart from the status quo. In short, they may not internalize the racial prejudice or racism that affects and overpowers involuntary minorities.

There continues to be much discussion concerning the definition of racial prejudice which leads to racism (Campbell & Marable, 1996; Hayes & Colin III, 1994). This discussion centers around the issues of power, privilege, who can be racist, and even if there are such concepts as race and racism today. Racial prejudice is the “prejudgement by others that the members of a race are in some way inferior, dangerous or repugnant” (Campbell & Marable, 1996, p. 49) to members of groups that typically enjoy power and privilege. Campbell and Marable describe racism, then, as “the oppression of a group of people based on their perceived race. Racism is both a belief system and the domination of people based on these beliefs” (p. 49). Colin III and Preciphs (1991) define racism as “conscious or unconscious, and expressed in actions or attitudes initiated by individuals, groups, or institutions that treat human beings unjustly because of their skin pigmentation. Therefore, racism is expressed in attitudes, behaviors and institutions” (p. 62). Racial prejudice, when expressed by either individuals or institutions, is widely viewed as inappropriate thought and behavior. The not so evident issues related to power, privilege and oppression, which are outgrowths of historically racist institutional polices and practices, are crucial to understanding how racial prejudice and institutional racism, both which are surrounded by denial and ignorance, prevail.

Most people understand and recognize racism on a personal level in the context of overt discrimination and other unfair practices. However, a deeper understanding at the cultural and institutional levels is necessary in order to effectively confront the powerful and subtle forms of racism that exist today. For the purposes of this paper, we define racism as power plus racial prejudice. Cultural racism is when power of the majority group plus their racial prejudice results in the exclusion of cultural contributions of historically oppressed groups from textbooks, art, language, and music. Institutional racism is when personal and cultural racism is formalized within the institution; that is, it is supported by the institutions’ formal and informal policies and practices for the benefit of a particular group and at the expense of another group.

One way to address institutional racism in educational institutions is to examine students’ roles within institutions and within the larger society. Rhoades and Valadez (1996) introduce the concept of critical multiculturalism, which calls attention “to the role of education as a powerful force in situating student identities as privileged or marginalized” (p. 19). They contend that the major challenge facing educational institutions is to serve culturally diverse student clientele by “enacting multiple organizational roles and embracing multiple forms of cultural knowledge” (p. 27). If institutions ignore their constituents, which consists of their students and the larger society that the institution serves, they reproduce the status quo, thus further marginalizing minorities. This form of educational practice leads to institutional racism and and the maintenance of power and privilege for those who traditionally have held this power, relegating those without power and privilege as outsiders to the borders of education and society in general.

Institutional racism continues to be a major problem in educational institutions within the United States (Baily, Burbidge, Campbell, Jackson, Marx, and McIntosh, 1993; Baily, Tisdell, & Cervero, 1994; Hayes & Colin, III, 1994; Tisdell, 1995). It permeates not only personal attitudes and behaviors of staff, faculty, and administrators but also institutional attitudes and behaviors (Barndt, 1991). Although formal educational institutional goals and mission statements frequently incorporate declarations promoting diversity, “informal” policies and practices within institutions may maintain the existent power structures within institutions. At the heart of these informal practices are racial prejudice and racism. Educational institutions, therefore, are not only a microcosm of society, but play an active role in perpetuating prevailing hegemonic societal attitudes through a socialization process.

This socialization concept could be viewed as a double edged sword. On one side is the socialization process that perpetuates the hegemonic racial and social norms that lie within educational institutions. On the other side, however, is the socialization potential to modify racism within these same institutions. This leaves educators with the daunting task of what to do or where to start the process of dismantling institutional racism. Although the enormity of the task impedes many from trying, those involved in education, by virtue of their training and position in the institutions, can facilitate change in the status quo by implementing strategies and programs with the purpose of recognizing and understanding the institutional nature of racism and the part that each individual contributes in building and maintaining a hegemonic racist system. There is some hope that multiple exposure to and participation in multicultural programs can increase awareness and ferment change within institutional culture (Hansman, Jackson, Grant & Spencer, in press). Everyone, from administrators to faculty members, has the potential of being actively involved in changing institutional culture.

In order to truly address the real issues, the focus must go beyond the policy changes that lead to the presence or representation of diverse cultures in educational institutions and the resultant strategies that were aimed at the overt racism of the past. All too frequently the presence of diverse cultures has equaled the assumption of no institutional racism, but this view is superficial at best and blocks the ability to look at the real issues. The focus now needs to be on understanding the systems and processes that were developed when the maintenance of an overt racist structure was the intention. The Crossroads Training Manual (1998) discusses five structures that maintain status quo and levels of institutional racism within organizations: mission and purpose statements, organizational structure, constituency, policy and practices, programs, and personnel. In order to challenge the status quo that maintains institutional racism, all of these areas must be addressed.

For instance, although an institution may have a written mission statement that proclaims it will serve all people of any race within the community through outreach programs, in reality outreach programs may utilize structures designed for the majority culture and that is ineffective with minority groups. Therefore, good intentions are sabotaged by ineffective planning programs and practice. When these ineffective program evaluations are examined, the poor results are explained as no or little response from minorities, yet in reality, the real barriers that exist for minorities have not been addressed. Thus in the real world of practice, institutions may continue to focus on maintaining power and privilege for the dominant group.

One of the first steps, then, in dismantling institutional racism and moving toward anti-racism is to examine how power and privilege operate at either active or passive levels in maintaining an oppressive system. Anti-racist communities and institutions consist of persons who “are committed and dedicated to the task of dismantling and tearing down the system of racism” that traps people into racist identities (Crossroads Ministry, p. 4). Increased awareness of power, privilege, and oppression results in enhanced skills and strategies for creating anti-racist communities or institutions (Crossroads Ministry, 1998). Without such an examination, growth towards anti-racism is blocked within all members of the institution.

Individuals have many strategies for making personal examinations of their own attitudes and behaviors surrounding racism, but recognizing the institutional, cultural and historical factors that maintain institutional racism and developing strategies to combat them may be a more difficult task. One place to start in this introspective examination is to look at those aspects of power, privilege, and oppression within the organizational setting that help maintain a racist system. Within this analysis, there must be an understanding and awareness that racism and racist communities develop and perpetuate in a systemic manner, consciously and/or unconsciously, rather than by chance.

Educators and school counselors generally have extensive training and experience in implementing strategies that focus on personal change that can lead to institutional change. Prejudice reduction exercises, conflict resolution programs, and cooperative learning are well within the everyday vocabulary and experience of educators. However, using consultation skills in groups to address either the institutional or cultural levels of change or development generally bring forth uncertainty and resistance within group members. Besides resistance, educators may have little confidence concerning where to start or how to proceed, since this territory is basically uncharted. Furthermore, there are few resources from which to draw, thus responding to the negative reactions elicited during group sessions may be fragmented and situational. Another frequent problem is that changes in educational institutions’ mission statements that reflect more tolerant and pro-active policies may lead to beliefs that institutional policies and procedures have become more tolerant and pro-active for minorities. However, mission statements do not usually reflect actual practice within institutions. In other words, it is easy to give lip service to cultural diversity, but to actually change institutional culture, overcome institutional racism, and make real changes in everyday practice, educators must address the underlying issues of power and privilege.

The idea that the maintenance of racist structures might be intentional is generally rejected by the European American majority; this rejection may be based on lack of awareness of power and privilege. One way of confronting this rejection is through the use of group process exercises developed by Judy Katz (1978), among them the exercise of creating a racist community. By asking a small group to construct a definition of racism, insights are gained concerning who has power and privilege and how this power and privilege are used to oppress others. After the group constructs their definition, the next assigned task is to outline the steps used to develop a racist community. The usual results provide the opportunity for the participants to gain an understanding of the energy, thought, intention, time, and resources it takes to build and maintain a racist community. Further, it helps participants begin to understand how much is readily known about building such a community. Gaining understandings of the dynamics of building and maintaining racist communities, of why and how racist communities are structured, and finally, of who has power and privilege and therefore benefits from that system, gives participants further clarity about where to start in dismantling racism on personal, cultural, and institutional levels.

Since institutional racism is so pervasive and embedded, long term, consistent, and intentional efforts directed toward systemic change need to include simultaneous efforts at the personal, institutional, and cultural levels. The previously mentioned community exercise is a process for identifying the key elements of racism and helping participants discover how racism functions in our society on the personal, institutional, and cultural levels. The exercise can generate much data that can be helpful in analyzing institutional factors, informal policy, and practices within a system. Participants can then examine how their created racist communities are different or the same as real communities. From the data generated, participants can then begin a re-education process and understand how their personal attitudes and behaviors have been and continue to be impacted by the development, perpetuation, and maintenance of institutional racism (Helms, 1992; Katz, 1978). Through personal dialogue, the exercise results in increased awareness of how personal attitudes and behaviors are permeated by the development and maintenance of institutional racism. Through critical dialogue, participants may gain an the awareness that institutional racism is systemic. With this understanding and knowledge, participants are better equipped to develop strategies for dealing with the power, privilege, and oppression aspects of racism on the personal, cultural, and institutional levels.

Our communities and educational institutions were founded on the premise of power and privilege (Pederson, 1988; Ogbu, 1993). An understanding of the reality of the systemic nature of institutional racism can help educators to recognize that racism is inherent in educational institutions. Acknowledging institutional racism in their current institutional settings, assessing the willingness and commitment of individuals and institutions to change, and helping to develop strategies to support change are the first steps in challenging and dismantling racism at both institutional and personal levels. The exercises Katz has developed are not an end in themselves, but begin to help participants to confront the reality of institutional racism. In particular, participants gain insight into the process of oppression, see its involvement in the maintenance of power, privilege, oppression, and therefore, the status quo.

All Americans have been socialized within a society that has a racist history that includes a denial of institutional and cultural factors contributing to the maintenance of racial prejudice and racism. All Americans have feelings, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding racism (Helms, 1992; Katz, 1978). It is impossible to be socialized in America and not be exposed to the subtle and pervasive nature of power, privilege, and oppression and the resulting racism that has become inherent to our systems. Much of the focus of anti-racist training has dealt only with overt acts of personal prejudice and discrimination. But in order to dismantle borders and allow barriers to be crossed, it is imperative to go beyond socialization around the issue of racism and participate in a critical dialogue. Racism affects one’s world view. It affects the decision making processes as well as the ability to resolve conflict and problems across cultures. As a result, it is difficult to be aware of discrepancies between espoused and practiced values and discrepancies in behaviors towards people of oppressed cultures. Institutional racism influences individuals worldwide. This world view is promulgated in the community, which includes educational institutions. Understanding the fundamental nature of institutional racism and how it is connected to personal racism is imperative for change. Although personal racism maybe easier to acknowledge than institutional racism, the latter also needs to be addressed because of its interactive nature with personal and cultural racism.

Racism is more than a personal attitude or behavior, it is the institutional formalization of that attitude or behavior. Educators need to allow for a process to begin-a process that promotes awareness and understanding of the fundamental nature of institutional racism. Going beyond socialization is going beyond dialogue alone. It is making changes to achieve the “critical multi-culturalism” (Rhoads & Valadez, 1996) that allows for the examination of power and privilege along with the questioning of institutional racism. Only then may we go beyond diversity and cross barriers in education. Without this critical dialogue, plus understanding and commitment, change will not occur.

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Dr. Catherine A. Hansman, Department of Counseling, Administration, Supervision & Adult Learning. Cleveland State University. Leon Spencer, Dale Grant, Mary Jackson, Georgia Southern University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Hansman, Department of Counseling, Administration, Supervision & Adult Learning. Cleveland State University, Rhodes Tower Room 1407, Cleveland, Ohio 44115.

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