Diversity is Essential to a Thriving Collegiate Culture
By Scott Kampschaefer
Have you ever wondered what the Texas State campus would be like without a diverse student or faculty body? It would be pretty bland and unstimulating on a host of different levels. It would reek of sterility and uniformity that stifles the human spirit. It would deprive us of necessary experiences that help shape everyone into the well-rounded human beings we need to be to function in the world as it is.
I was lucky enough to attend school here as a graduate student and be inculcated into a mindset of diversity and inclusion by virtue of my major field of study, social work. My cohort of students was not particularly diverse when I entered, but by the time I graduated in 2009 I had been exposed to a plethora of ideas by my professors and fellow students that has made a lasting impact on my life today. During my second year, my original cohort had been combined with a large body of advanced standing social work majors from the Bachelor of Social Work program that helped to expand the amount of ideas and viewpoints I was exposed to.
Moving forward, I hope to see an ever-more diverse student and faculty body that includes the voices that are necessary to counter an increasingly threatening drumbeat of clannishness and isolationist philosophy. If there’s anything that the first images from the moon in the late 1960’s should have taught us, it was that we are all one human race and organism that need to figure out how to live together and support each other on this walk through life.
Not only do we need to embrace people of different geographic cultures at Texas State, but we also need to ever more deeply embrace the veteran culture, those in sexual minorities, and other variations on the theme of culture that we are now becoming more and more aware of. Accepting those diverse cultures and staying at the forefront of embracing more facets of diversity can be here like it is in the known universe in general: something that is expanding and growing to be ever-more inclusive than we already are.
In the following pages I will try to emphasize some key features of what I hope will become the main way of operating as members of a diverse community at Texas State, as well as to give some examples and guidelines for making a reality of these ideas.
One of the ideas that was bantered about a lot when I was a public school teacher in the Houston area back in the 1990’s, and still tends to predominate today, is the idea of ‘tolerance.’ The focus is on tolerating people of different cultures, as opposed to embracing them. I sat through an all-day training while working at a school district in Houston after one of the administrators had made a racially insensitive comment where the facilitator continually emphasized viewing members of other cultural groups as a ‘Child(ren) of God.’ I liked this, and despite having some feelings of resistance to attending this training considering we staff members were doing this because of one administrator’s comments, I have kept this mindset to this day.
I have often thought that focusing on an attitude of “acceptance” of people in other cultures was better than focusing on “tolerance.” Tolerance suggests that I don’t like people of other cultures and need to find a way to “put up with” them. Acceptance, on the other hand, suggests that I need to try and embrace the ideas and practices of other cultures instead of just ‘putting up with’ them. I may or may not like all of them, but the idea is to not close other cultural groups out of my life. This goes along with having an attitude of inclusiveness, as opposed to the clannishness that is so prevalent today.
When I accept someone of another culture, I view their rituals and practices as equally valid and important as my own. Again, I may or may not like them, but if I have an accepting attitude I don’t put up walls to keep them out of my world or consciousness. Going back to that image of the earth from the moon back in the 1960’s, I have to admit that we are all travelers on this one spaceship hurtling through space, and unless I can accept someone else from another culture, I haven’t recognized that we are all homo sapiens with the same genetic background (which is another key point) and can be traced back to the same descendants who lived so many centuries ago.
So if I am accepting of a student from a different culture at Texas State, instead of just putting up with what they may be saying or doing, I focus on trying not to avoid them out of my own discomfort. Instead I try to get an idea of where they’re coming from and don’t discount their cultural rituals and practices as ‘less than’ my own, but remind myself that their ways of doing things are just as important and valid as mine. Whether they’re Americans or not, I can have a consciousness of equality instead of just ‘putting up with’ another.
As I mentioned earlier, we have about 99% genetic similarity not only with people of other cultures, we have DNA which is that similar to what we would also call ‘sub-human’ species of living organisms as well (‘People Are Not As Alike as Scientists Once Thought’). I’m not mentioning this as part of some underlying approach to interacting with people of different cultures, but it does help to put in place the idea that underlying all the obvious differences in expression and appearance of someone from a different culture, there is much more that makes us similar than different. When I can remind myself of that, I can have a much different attitude towards people of different cultures.
There are few other areas of differences that get as much focus as sexuality. I’m not only talking about someone from a different gender, but as much or more someone who has different sexual orientation, values, and practices as myself. When you consider that some of these individuals may also be from different ethnic cultures, then that makes the aforementioned differences that much more accentuated and potentially conflictual. If these individual’s values and practices are in conflict with my own, then I have to work to “suspend my judgment” about these folks (Braun-Harvey, 2014).
One of the exercises I recently did with a practice class I teach was to have the students write down the judgments they have of others (and themselves in some cases), and to literally hang them from a clothesline suspended at the back of class. The exercise was to visually represent the idea that if I have a judgment about somebody else, I need to “suspend it” and not allow it to color my interactions with them. We all have judgments, but we can choose to either put them on others or to just keep them in a state of suspension where they don’t have to harm others. This also helps us have a better ability to temper our innate biases and be more able to identify them as just that—biases. If we can do that, the person we are listening to will be more able to trust us and not fear that we will shun them for their differences. The students seemed to really appreciate this exercise, and from the feedback I got, I discovered that the judgments weren’t just about others. They were also about the individuals who had them. This illustrates how, if I have a judgment about someone else, it is also about me on a very deep level. Modern psychology has illustrated that the defense mechanism of projection (McLeod) is fundamentally about oneself instead of others. It relates to intense emotions of fear and emotional pain that often gets expressed as hatred.
If I am able to have a calm and reasoned conversation with someone who differs from me without reacting to those differences, to some extent I have managed to suspend the judgments I have about the person and succeeded in not denigrating or demeaning them. By the way, the conversations that happen face to face are least likely to result in misunderstanding or animosity as a result. I’ll get back to this point later.
I remember one classmate of mine who may or may not have been from a different culture (her last name was not of a particular culture). One day she revealed to me that she moonlighted as a burlesque dancer. I knew little about this, but after looking up some information on the internet (this was a subculture I knew little about) I learned that the clubs she frequented were also populated by people who were into swinging as well, which is a term for having sex with each other’s’ spouses. I quickly formed some judgments and conclusions about her affiliations, but this didn’t keep me from being friendly and cordial to her. It helped that we already had some significant positive rapport built up for about a year of attending classes together before she disclosed this to me. I mentioned this because she was identifying herself as being of a diverse background in other ways more obvious than this (she had one or more major health diagnoses as well). I had other classmates that were from diverse backgrounds as well, and was able to have much the same rapport and good will towards them. I think this was at least in part due to similar values that contributed to having a similar major, and being in the same academic cohort. All these experiences helped me have more acceptance of the diversity of others, but they also helped me be more accepting of myself as someone who wasn’t exactly ‘white bread’ Anglo.
To get back to my earlier point about the value of face-to-face interactions, the reason I consider these to be more apt to result in positive interactions owes to the fact that if I’m engaging face to face with someone, I am less likely to say something to offend them because they are right in front of me. I can have a better chance of being able to develop genuine empathy for them because I notice they are human beings, just like me. I am also more likely to try and understand where they are coming from, in a manner of speaking. I may want to learn more about them to be able to understand them, which relates to developing more cultural competence on my part. These are a few of the key capacities of someone in the counseling or social work professions, like myself.
Texting or exchanging messages on social media is at least one step removed from the live person, and it’s easier to slip into treating them as something less than a real person with real feelings. This is one of the primary drawback of the electronic age: the removal of face to face interactions in much communication we have with each other. Interacting with a screen isn’t the same as interacting with a real person, and the further removed I get from this experience the more I am likely to slip into treating others in less than compassionate manners. The more I slip into my own ‘echo chamber,’ the more I only reinforce the ideas I already have.
The great thing about being on a university campus with people of diverse backgrounds is that I at least have the opportunity to interact with many different individuals face to face and learn more about them and myself at the same time. I can do this in a way that doesn’t undercut our shared humanity or dignity. That humanity and dignity is always there, but if I don’t recognize it I’m slipping into some dangerous territory as far as potentially tearing at the fabric of society that deems each person to be of equal value to every other person. This recognition of human dignity is in our Declaration of Independence. It’s what makes us unique as a nation among other nations. If we lose that value, then we lose a big part of what makes us who we are. If we lose a sense of who we are as a country, then we are truly lost indeed.
In conclusion, I’ll say that our hope lies in befriending those who have some significant differences from ourselves. On this campus we have ample opportunity to do that. At some point it becomes time to look up from our portable electronic devices and see the others around us as the key to a better life. They don’t have to be our boyfriend or girlfriend, our spouse or our best friend. They just have to be themselves and be willing to give us the same grace that we give them, not trying to appear better or worse, just as real and authentic as they can muster. This will allow us to be truly educated and enlightened and to leave this campus with more than a diploma and a fancy robe on. It will help us have a better grasp of the real world and everyone in it...and that’s a real education.
About the Author
Scott Kampschaefer, LCSW has served as a part-time faculty member at Texas State from 2017 to 2018, and is a clinical social worker in Austin, Texas. He has an extensive background in working with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder at a clinic for older adults with these disorders in Austin. He currently works with adults and adolescents in private practice.