Defining Diversity: Much More than Race, Ethnicity and Gender

Defining Diversity: Much More than Race, Ethnicity and Gender

Damita Davis

Associate Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Office for Institutional Diversity, Boston College

For years the concept of diversity was relegated to race and gender. If you ask anyone to define diversity, they may give a “textbook” answer and say, “having people from different races, ethnicities and cultures,” and in part they would be right. However, as American society has grown in population, homogeneity has decreased and the “list” of diversity characteristics keeps getting longer. In addition, how one self-identifies has become more complex.

A person is no longer “just” Latino or male, there are additional categories of identification that members of American society use to describe who they are. The once Latino male, is also a person with a disability, has transitioned from female to male and is a practicing Buddhist. All of those identifiers shape a person’s life experiences and how they navigate the world. There’s more intersectionality within one’s identity than ever before.

This begs the question: How do we as higher educational professionals support members of our community in meaningful ways, when the definition for diversity is constantly changing?

This question hit home for me when speaking to a colleague about the term gender fluidity and what it meant. I won’t go into the details of that conversation; however, what I will say is we both ended that conversation with more questions. Namely, how do we incorporate gender fluidity into the work we’re already doing in areas of diversity and inclusion that will have a positive impact within our community? It doesn’t seem like we’re able to keep up with our ever-changing times.

Furthermore, how do we address the discrimination and injustices inflicted upon those of us who do not identify as members of the dominant culture in America; in what order; and whose state of oppression gets addressed first? Given the current climate of student unrest on college campuses across the country, I’d say we need to address them all in meaningful ways. That being said, are we equipped to do so? The pessimist in me says no we aren’t. But, the optimist, and perhaps realist in me, has hope.

In an effort to honor my optimism , here are some of the techniques that I employ when attempting to determine best practices in my work:

Acknowledge what you do and don’t know. We all may have a passion or even an expertise in a subject area. However, there’s always something new to learn. Be honest about areas of knowledge that are challenging for you and be open to receiving new information.

Ask questions. Once you’ve been made aware of new learning, ask questions. Ask why a “new” trend is important for you to be aware of and it’s implications on how you approach your work.

Tap into your resources. Talk to your colleagues at your own institution or those at other colleges and universities. Engage in a conversation with students; they are a great source of information, especially when it involves their college experience.

Educate yourself. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge we have access to in higher education. Learn as much as you possibly can about the topic of interest. Readings, webinars, conferences, professional development opportunities or attending student programs are great resources with a wealth of knowledge.

I don’t have the answers to these difficult questions. My hope is, as a collective of educators, we can explore the possible solutions to these questions and more to come. I invite you to join me on this journey, through this process, as I examine the difference between diversity and inclusion, as well as look at the ways we address the various “isms” related to diversity. To help guide future conversations, tell me, how is diversity defined at your institutions? Is it all encompassing or narrowly defined? Your feedback is vital to having an open dialogue about diversity and inclusion, and determining possible best practices.

About the Author: Damita Davis serves as the Associate Director, Diversity and Inclusion in the Office for Institutional Diversity at Boston College. In this role, she is responsible for developing and implementing diversity and inclusion educational programs for the University, with a focus on the recruitment, hiring and retention of BC's diverse workforce. Prior to joining the BC community, Damita was the Director of Multicultural Programs at Emmanuel College-MA. Highly skilled in program design and implementation, Damita coordinated Emmanuel College’s diversity lecture series, Through the Wire, has written and implemented the College’s Bias Incident and Hate Crime Policy becoming the convener of the Bias Response Team; and for over four years has coordinated the Southern Africa Service Learning Trip and Travel Course. A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Damita received both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Rhode Island. In 1997, Damita received her Bachelors of Science in Human Development and Family Studies and in 2002 she received a Master of Science in Human Development and Family Studies with a concentration in College Student Personnel.

Damita Davis

Associate Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Office for Institutional Diversity, Boston College