What Is Cultural Diversity?
Among the many beneficial experiences one has in college, one of the most important is the opportunity to engage with people from cultures around the country or around the world. This coming together of different cultures within one larger culture is known as cultural diversity, and it can be one of the most educational experiences one has in an academic environment. Yet for all its positive aspects, cultural diversity can also present students and faculty with certain challenges that can disrupt the learning process.
Cultural diversity is not at all unique to college campuses; rather, it is an increasingly important aspect of many societies that affects almost every social sphere. For that reason, exposing young people to such diversity early on in their lives can enhance their ability to appreciate and respectfully engage with people from various cultural backgrounds, thus mitigating the potential for conflict.
Challenges of Diversity in the Classroom
In general, this early experience with diversity helps people to see things from different perspectives and in different ways, making students more creative and improving critical thinking. However, just because diversity benefits us doesn't mean that it's always welcome or will be an easy transition.
One of the more common challenges brought about by diversity is overcoming personal biases, which is the inclination to prefer one thing over another, often with negative consequences. In discussions of race, for example, students may strongly defend the historical behavior or treatment of their own race, while rejecting or minimizing other perspectives. In this case, the negative consequences are that students fail to see the larger picture and miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge or develop a more robust understanding of the subject.
Whether or not cultural diversity will be a challenge has quite a bit to do with the structural diversity in our early lives, or the number of minority groups present in students' prior environments. A student raised in a relatively small homogeneous community may find a more diverse student body more challenging than those from a racially and ethnically diverse community. Fortunately, there are certain approaches and steps that can be taken to make the environment more open and positive for all students.
The Course Material
There is no guarantee that cultural diversity won't be challenging in the classroom, but the best way to get off to a good start is to include diverse perspectives in course content, or materials and subjects for discussion. For instance, if you're teaching a class on race and race relations in 19th-century America, consider adding some texts from Indigenous, African-American, and Chinese scholars. Not only will this provide students with various perspectives on the subject, it also places an equal value on narratives from other cultures and, by extension, their people. Failure to do this may reinforce cultural stereotypes and support a dominant narrative that minimizes alternative or conflicting voices.
Including culturally diverse perspectives in the materials also opens up an important opportunity for enhanced classroom participation. When minority students see that they are being reflected in the course content, they will likely feel more included and more willing to participate in the discussions. Moreover, if in your discussions of race and race relations in 19th-century America you come across a particular aspect of a culture that is unfamiliar to many students, offer students from that background the opportunity to provide a cultural translation for the rest of the class. This not only fosters active participation, but also provides a frame of reference for other students and helps them to make a connection to a person from a different culture.
Diversify Cultural References
Each of us has a base of knowledge and perspective that has been informed by our experiences. For better or worse, it is from that position that we operate and it is a position that can be skewed towards things with which we are familiar. If you came of age in the 1970s or 1980s, for example, you might make references to things like Knott's Landing or Farrah Fawcett. This is fine for you, but for people that were born much later or in another culture, these things will likely have little, if any, meaning.
The references in the previous example are known as cultural references, which are events, people, or things that are specific to one culture. Using cultural references can be a great way to explain something, but they only work when the person you're speaking to is familiar with the references. Imagine that you're telling a story about going to a football game and having a tailgate party. Because football and tailgate parties are both American traditions, these cultural references would be lost on people from other cultures and might make them feel excluded from the conversation.
In higher education, cultural references come up very often in literature, media studies, and even casual conversation. Rather than assume that everyone will understand the reference, make an effort to diversify cultural references and provide translations. For instance, if you're discussing Halloween, you might note that there are similar traditions in other cultures like Obon (Japan) and Dia de los Muertos, which means 'Day of the Dead' (Mexico). In doing so, you are recognizing cultural diversity in general and providing a productive comparison for those that are unfamiliar with your reference.
Cultural diversity benefits everyone in some very important ways, but that doesn't mean that it won't produce conflict. Our biases and the structural diversity of our lives play a considerable role in how well one will take to entering a cultural diverse environment, such as those found in higher education.
In order to address cultural diversity and use it to students' benefits, there are some steps that can be taken to ease the transition. When considering the course content, include culturally diverse perspectives and treat them equally. Additionally, broadening the cultural references used in discussion and providing some comparisons can also be useful and/or beneficial for addressing a culturally diverse audience, as well as cultural diversity itself.
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