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Building Blocks

Use building blocks and key concepts and as a basis for consideration of diversity issues. The word "diversity" for many white students is interpreted as "them." Introducing concepts can provide frameworks for students to understand the great differences in the ways that people make sense of the world, view others, and are viewed by others. The concepts can also be utilized to comprehend the impact of attitudes, laws, and other societal forces on the treatment by society and opportunities for advancement on members of marginalized groups.

There are any number of concepts that can be used as building blocks in diversity-related courses. This section provides a brief overview and approaches for promoting student learning for the concepts of:

  • social identity
  • culture
  • race
  • ethnicity
  • white skin privilege
  • social oppression
  • social justice

Social identity
One part of our self-concept is our personal identity, how each of us thinks of himself or herself as a unique human being. Another important part is our social identity, groups that to which we perceive we belong. Group identification or membership influences our outlook and behavior, to the degree that we accept and adhere to the values, beliefs, customs, and actions of a group.

We can also acquire group identities as others, on the basis of appearance or some other attribute, categorize us as members of a group or subgroup (and that attribution may not be correct). A visiting African professor can be seen as African-American, based on the color of his skin. A person with a Hispanic surname can be seen as a foreigner or immigrant, even though her family has lived in the United States for over 400 years.

All of us have multiple identities. The worksheet Understanding our Social Identities can be a useful tool for students to use in coming to grips with what is important to them in terms of their self-concept.

Culture can be defined as a set of meanings or understandings shared by a group of people, a framework, a worldview, or a cognitive map that is used to make sense of the world. Another description of culture is a group's attempts to interpret, give meaning to, and function within shared circumstances. Culture also can be understood as a way of life of a people or society, consisting of norms of behavior, beliefs, values, and traditions. Culture provides us with our fundamental sense of belonging, ways to function within shared circumstances and to fit within society as a whole. Our group identities-- the "we's" that shape us-- influence our experience by determining whether we are relaxed and can speak in the shared language/idioms of others who share the same basic world view and experience, or whether we have to translate ourselves to others who would not understand the way we interpret the world.

Culture is often narrowly defined to include only those differences in worldviews and practices associated with ethnic and racial groups outside the dominant culture. An expanded definition would assume that all of us belong to cultures and subcultures. The duration and strength of our connections with those cultures and subcultures influence the way we make sense of and participate in the world, including use of language, habits of thinking, and patterns of social and interpersonal relationships.

The concept of culture is often best understood when students engage in exercises that illustrate differences across cultures:

  • An in-class exercise on American proverbs uses a handout which lists ten sayings (from sources such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac) including "There's no fool like an old fool" and "The early bird gets the worm." Individually and then in pairs/small groups, students identify both the value expressed by the proverb and an alternative to this value in another culture or cultures. Difficulty in coming up with alternative values can be reframed as a consequence of being immersed in U.S. cultural values.
  • An out-of-class assignment is to send students to a local grocery store that primarily serves members of an identifiable racial or ethnic group (Asian or Latino, for example). Before making the assignment, students need to be exposed to some of the ways culture is expressed-through the use of space, nonverbal communications, politeness, and use of resources. Students should go alone or in no more than pairs. After spending about twice as much time in the store as they normally would shopping, students should fill out the Ethnic Grocery Culture Observation sheet 1 .

Race is a social construct that divides people into distinct groups based on physical characteristics (especially skin color), ancestral heritage, imprecise biology, and in many countries, the history and relative importance of racial categorizations in that country.

Individuals who have only lived in the United States often think they understand race without having devoted much time to understanding the concept and its implications for American society. Three approaches that can be more useful than lecturing about race are:

  • Either working individually or in small groups, students categorize "groups" into as few racial categories as possible. In the discussion that follows this exercise, which is frustrating for students, the inherent overlap in any racial categorization can be explored, and content can be provided-such as the work of geneticists who assert that there is far more genetic diversity within what we think of as racial groups than between racial groups 2 .
  • Have students read or research statements about race at different points in time in the history of the USA , and write about what has and has not changed in the way race is considered in this country. For example, in the 1896 Supreme Court decision that affirmed the legality of "separate but equal", Plessy vs. Ferguson , Justice Bradley stated: "A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races-- a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color-- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races."
  • Have students read accounts by individuals living in other countries on their reactions to the power of the concept of race in the USA (such as Marie Arana's recent memoir, American Chica , or Ursula Broschke Davis' Paris Without Regrets on how liberating it was for James Baldwin and other black authors and artist to move from the United States to Paris in the first two-thirds of the 20 th century).

An ethnic group is a group of people that hold a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or customs or both, or because of common memories, such as of immigration or oppression. Members of an ethnic group may demonstrate ethnic belonging , defined as one's consciousness of one's ethnicity (and its value). This varies widely from person to person, even within "ethnic groups". Ethnic belonging or identification may be self-defined or the defining may be done by others. It may be seen as a source of pride or a source of shame. Ethnic belonging is participatory, as the identity is reinforced through expressed and unexpressed rules, rituals, family traditions, and social gatherings of people with a common ethnic heritage.

Ethnicity is linked to culture in:

  • behavioral ethnicity , the behaviors that derive from values and norms of an ethnic group learned in the socialization process, food preferences, language, practices of celebrating holidays, etc.
  • ideological ethnicity , the political beliefs (which includes beliefs about the role of religion in society as well as foreign policy, etc.) that are strong within a specific ethnic group.
  • the degree to which the ethnic identity is "thick" or "thin" (strongly held or not that important) , which influences the degree to which cultural beliefs and practices are transmitted to younger persons within that ethnic group.

For many students in the U.S. , ethnicity is not seen as important. It has been generations since the family came to this country, and there has been both intermarriage across ethnic lines and conscious efforts by grandparents and great-grandparents to downplay ethnic identity. One strategy for increasing students' understanding of their own ethnicity and its potential importance is to have students complete a paper that explores their ethnicity. A less ambitious approach is to use (or go back to) the " Understanding Our Social Identities" worksheet, referring to the question on ethnicity. Ask how many students, on a scale of 1-10 (ten is high), rated their ethnicity 3 or lower, how many rated it a 7 or higher. Then, without calling on individual students, first ask those who rated their ethnicities as not very important or important to state the reasons. Often those who ranked their ethnicity as important are from families who only been in this country for only one or two generations, or from families that have maintained their ethnic identity over time. Some students come into a course believing that because their own ethnic identity was thin, ethnicity was unimportant. Hearing from other students who are similar to them in many ways about the value of ethnic identity can help them understand that one's ethnicity is important to many people.

White Skin Privilege
Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh writes that as a white person, she realized that she had been taught that racism disadvantages some people, but had never been taught about its opposite, privilege, which puts white people like her at an advantage: "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. 3 "

Listed below are several examples of white skin privilege. 

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

An example of the way that students can focus on white skin privilege as well as race and being an outsider is Paying Attention to Privilege, Race, and Being an Outsider.

Social Oppression
Hardiman and Bailey 4 state that social oppression exists when one social group, whether unconsciously or consciously, exploits another social group for its own benefit. Members of the oppressed group have limited or no access to resources or opportunities as a consequence of their membership in a particular group, typically as an accident of birth. A condition of social oppression exists when:

  • The dominant group has the power to define and name reality and determine what is "normal, "real", or "correct;"
  • Harassment, discrimination, exploitation, marginalization, and other forms of differential and unequal treatment are institutionalized. These acts often do not require the conscious thought or effort of individual members of the dominant group but are rather part of business as usual that become a normal part of social structures over time;
  • The target group is socialized to internalize their oppressed condition as the normal state of affairs and collude with the oppressor's ideology and social system;
  • The target group's culture, language, and history is misrepresented, discounted, or eradicated and the dominant group's culture is imposed.

Like privilege, oppression is unearned.

Narrative accounts-first person writing, short stories, novels-provide students with enough information on the thoughts and actions of individuals or characters in fiction so that concepts such as social oppression can be applied, and students can reflect on the impacts of the social oppression on the individuals/ characters and on others.

Social Justice
The idea of justice at its most basic level concerns the beliefs that people have as to what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, deserved and undeserved. We all have beliefs about which of our own actions is right and fair, and how we should be treated by others. When we apply those values and ideas to a community or society we are in the realm of social justice. Social justice ultimately has to do with our vision of what kind of society we want to live in and create.

Social Justice can be thought of in terms of:

  1. fairness in treatment by the courts and the general society. In the legal system, the issues is the degree to which some members of society are treated differently by the court system than other members. Supreme Court cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education and legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 have been instances when branches of the United States government moved toward fairer treatment for some of its citizens.
  2. opportunities to participate in the larger society. This is influenced to some degree by the extent of discrimination and privilege that are accorded some members of society based on their race, skin color, ethnic background, disability status, gender, sexual preference, or other attributes.
  3. the possession and acquisition of resources based on some valid claim to a share of those resources. At the start of the 21 st century, where capitalism as an ideology holds very broad public support, it is important to think about what a booming economy can do other than enrich a growing number of people.

The concepts covered in this section can be used in written assignments and class discussions as reference points during the span of a course.

  1. This exercise was adapted from several sources. A major one was Teaching About Culture, Ethnicity, and Diversity , edited by Theodore M. Singelis, published by Sage Publications ( Thousand Oaks , California ) in 1998.
  2. Bamshad, Michael J. and Olson, Steve E. (2003). Does race exist? Scientific American , 289(6), 78-85.
  3. McIntosh, Peggy (1988). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies . Wellesley , MA : Wellesley College Working Paper 189.
  4. Hardiman, Rita and Jackson, Bailey W. (1997). Conceptual Foundations for Social Justice Courses. In Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook , Adams, Maurianne, Bell , Lee Ann, and Griffin , Pat, eds. New York : Routledge, p. 17.