‘Inclusion for All’ on College Campuses: An Intergroup Focus
Colleges can use their spaces to promote inclusion across intergroup lines.
Posted Sep 20, 2018
Last week, the University of Maryland faced swift backlash following a diversity and inclusion effort that targeted white students. The university’s counseling center advertised a group, initially named White Awake, as a safe space for White students to understand their identity and discuss discomfort with interactions involving racial and ethnic minorities.
Many have questioned the need for such as space and have suggested that the creation of the group is an act of exclusion and discrimination—one that conjures images of the nation’s past of legalized racial segregation, which marked spaces for “Whites only” including, ironically, college campuses.
While the university has responded to the backlash by acknowledging the importance of language, suggesting that the original name of the group was misleading and a distraction, it stands by the intention of the effort—to prepare white students to engage in an increasingly diverse and multicultural society.
Yet, even a rebranding of the name can’t fix the harm of the effort. That is, the effort fails to take into account an intergroup focus. It fails to consider how the presence of such a group impacts a sense of inclusion for students who are not white, students from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds who face chronic questions of belonging. It fails to consider how such a space and effort marks racial and ethnic minorities out to be the problem, the cause of discomfort for white students in interracial interactions. It even fails to consider the science on intergroup relations. Notably, scientific findings on positive interracial interactions highlight the danger of avoidance, not discomfort or anxiety.
College campuses can use their spaces to promote inclusion across intergroup lines—a sense of belonging that is not zero-sum. That is, inclusion efforts that make white students feel a sense of belonging need not come at the cost of marginalized and/or underrepresented students, and vice versa. Universities can leverage spaces to promote a sense of inclusion for all. Yet, those spaces and efforts need to take an intergroup focus, they cannot be attuned to the needs and motivations of one group at the expense of other groups.
Interestingly, spaces on college campuses that are the result of collective protests by students from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds and their allies sparked during the Civil Rights Movement and nation-wide protests on college campuses in 2015 are especially ripe for harvesting inclusion across intergroup lines. These spaces with transformative potential include classroom and curriculum practices as well as extracurricular activities that are inclusive of the history and perspectives of underrepresented groups (e.g., Latino/a/x or African American studies classes).
My research with colleagues has shown that engagement with such spaces offers benefits across group lines. It promotes a greater sense of academic fit and in turn persistence and performance among racial and ethnic minorities. And, it promotes a greater sense of intergroup closeness, more positive implicit intergroup attitudes, and even—consistent with the need identified by the University of Maryland’s counseling center—a greater sense of preparation to engage in a diverse and multicultural society among white and Asian students.
Spaces that are inclusive of the history and perspectives of underrepresented groups are attuned to intergroup needs and motivations. Such spaces and practices can afford empathy across racial group lines—the type of intergroup understanding that can allow individuals from different backgrounds to thrive and co-exist in gateway institutions like college campuses.
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Brannon, T. N., Markus, H. R., & Taylor, V. J. (2015). ‘Two Souls, Two Thoughts’, Two Self-Schemas: Double Consciousness can have positive academic consequences for African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Brannon, T. N. & Walton, G. M. (2013). Enacting cultural interests: How intergroup contact reduces prejudice by sparking interest in an outgroup’s culture. Psychological Science.
Stephens, N. M., Brannon, T. N., Markus, H. R., & Nelson, J. (2015). Feeling at home in college: Cultivating fit and empowerment to reduce social class disparities in higher education. Social Issues and Policy Review.