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Discourses on diversity: between buzzword and reality

April 20, 2018

Diana Furukawa

This article is the fourth and final installment in the Diversity Matters series, in which students from the Diversity in Higher Education seminar present research based on interviews with 48 seniors. To read the first installment, click here. To read the second installment, click here. To read the third installment, click here.

The word “diversity” is tossed around on college campuses: its facts, figures and photographic representations are plastered across Bowdoin Admissions brochures and also invoked during First Year Orientation. These moments and materials share a message: students of many backgrounds are now admitted to and attend Bowdoin. This was not always the case. Since its founding, Bowdoin has catered primarily to a white, wealthy class of elite men.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, 64 percent of Bowdoin students identified as white. While this does reflect Bowdoin’s changing admissions policies, it is still not representative of the national racial demographics of our age group. Furthermore, twenty percent of Bowdoin students come from the top one percent, meaning their families earn $630,000 or more each year. But even if the numbers were representative, they would not tell the full story. Our interviews reveal complex campus experiences with diversity that cannot be quantified.

In this final installment of our series, we will consider how students see diversity. Our research will look at what students think about diversity at Bowdoin and will seek to understand what makes so many unsatisfied with how this community regards difference. We will consider which measures may effectively build a more inclusive community.

When we asked our interviewees about what the word “diversity” means to them, they discussed an array of identities, feelings and actions. To many students, diversity implies a collection of different characteristics or identities. Interviewees mentioned geographic origin, sexuality, style, religion, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender and political ideology as areas of diversity. More than half (51 percent) of our interviewees did not explicitly mention either class or race when describing diversity. At a school with a historically and presently white and wealthy student body, what does this mean for how students experience Bowdoin’s diversity?

•••

Of the students who answered the interview question, “What do you think about diversity at Bowdoin?” 27 percent suggested they were satisfied with the College’s efforts towards diversity. This group of students, split evenly between white students and students of color, ranged in their answers but tended to be forgiving of the College and its attempts to strive for a more diverse campus. One emergent theme in this group of students was an acknowledgement of effort. As one student said, “I feel like the College is trying … and I feel like I have seen things change … that point to that being true.” Students also credited Bowdoin administrators for “doing their best to make it a diverse place,” either in a general sense or through recruitment processes intended to bring “different types of people to Bowdoin.” Included in this group were students who judged the campus to be diverse in race, class and gender, but not in “thought.”

The majority (66 percent) of our interviewees expressed that they do not believe the College is doing enough to foster a diverse and inclusive campus environment for all students. These students showed dissatisfaction with the College’s work promoting campus diversity and inclusion, believing such efforts were insufficient or unsuccessful, while seven percent offered inconclusive or confused answers. Nine percent of our interviewees (all of whom were students of color) expressed feeling unsatisfied and explicitly described diversity at Bowdoin as “lacking” across various categories, not only in race but also in “sexual diversity” and “a lack of diversity in general.” These unsatisfied interviewees were more critical of diversity and its role on campus, mentioning segregation or a lack of inclusivity within various groups on campus that negated the potential benefits of having a diverse population. This points to the crucial difference between diversity and inclusion: diversity is a range of people existing on campus, while inclusion requires facilitating integration and equity in their experiences here. For some of our interviewees, Bowdoin falls short in both regards.

Some students considered the challenges of diversity on this predominantly white campus. One student said that “people who are considered diverse” do not always feel welcome, and another described diversity on campus as “objectify[ing] people’s cultures and experiences,” which leads “to those individuals feeling a greater sense of otherness and just not being valued as a human being.” Moreover, in contrast to the students in the “satisfied” group who said “Bowdoin has gotten more diverse since I’ve been here,” some unsatisfied students felt otherwise. For example, one student said, “Initially, I thought that Bowdoin was very diverse…and I think the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve realized that … there are more people from different areas, et cetera … [but] they’re not as integrated as I would expect them to be.”

Within this group of unsatisfied respondents, some interviewees displayed a sense of apathy or conceded to their own role in creating some of the divisions they described seeing on campus. For example, one student said, “It doesn’t really feel that diverse. Even looking at the groups that I spend a lot of time with, … there is a little bit of diversity on campus, but people tend to stay within their own groups.” This supports an earlier finding that more than 70 percent of the seniors we interviewed felt that students self-segregate by race. As these various responses show, most of our interviewees perceived Bowdoin’s diversity as either insufficient or ineffectively supported on campus.

Seventeen percent of our respondents considered political ideology, or “the competition of ideas,” as part of diversity, but did not mention diversity of background or experience (such as race and class). This points to a larger issue at Bowdoin: students are neither required nor adequately taught to critically analyze and address diversity with roots in marginalization. If these students, like those who felt they have benefitted educationally from racial diversity, do not consider why diversity matters beyond its contributions to their own intellectual growth, the College ultimately fails at its stated mission of preparing Bowdoin students to be “a complete individual for a world in flux.”

Almost across the board, students recognized that some kind of diversity is important. And yet, many do not seem to critically understand why diversity matters. Diversity matters because behind most types of diversity students discussed—of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability—lurks a history of exclusion, and, as one student said, schools like Bowdoin are still, at their core, “designed for [the same] people who it was originally designed for.”

While the College strives to increase diversity and promote inclusivity on campus beyond admissions, our interviewees show these efforts are currently not enough. Students’ understandings of diversity, racially-charged controversies campus and living with and learning about difference by and large fail to acknowledge inequity. Acknowledging inequity is essential to making this school a place every Bowdoin student can call home.

•••

Our research shows the unending variation in Bowdoin students’ experiences. The stories we have shared implore students, faculty, administrators and staff, as actors on this campus and in the broader world, to reject assumptions about our peers and colleagues, to push beyond the simplistic categorizations to which we subject ourselves and each other.

In writing these pieces, it was clear to us not just how divergent our peers’ interactions with diversity at Bowdoin have been, but also how relatable their stories feel. We, like you, see ourselves in the words of the 48 students we interviewed. Like you, we were also frustrated and concerned at times.

The purpose of this project was not, however, to point fingers. For those of you hoping for incriminating evidence that gives energy to the stereotype of “problematic” suspects—the wealthy, white, conservative athlete majoring in economics—our data have failed you. Similarly, our data refute the notion of a homogenous experience among students of color. While there were trends in our data among some students of certain backgrounds, our research directs greater attention to the vast differences among students who, on paper, seemed “the same.” In giving students space and time to share, we uncovered a multitude of painful moments, exciting prospects, lingering concerns and deep reflections. The beauty of qualitative data is that they illuminate the nuances of lived experiences. We hope that the stories we have shared remind Bowdoin of the multitude of meanings of diversity; our data show that there are consequences to forgetting these stories. Still, no research is perfect: we could never say it all. There are endless resources available on the topic we have covered in our series. We encourage everyone to start by reading the honors thesis by Pamela Zabala ’17.

We hope that our research prompts you to think more critically about difference—in the Bowdoin community and in our society. We urge each of you to challenge the status quo of social segregation, insufficient racial education and incomplete collective memory.

In matters of diversity, we all matter.

This article draws from additional analyses by Julia Conley ’18 and Diana Furukawa ’18.

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