Compositional Diversity Is A Start But Not Enough!
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
Twenty years ago in the darkness of an incredibly early August morning, I hugged my mother goodbye, loaded the last box in my aunt’s car, took my position in the passenger seat, and started the eight hour drive from Boston to first year orientation at a small private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. As a graduate of a 4-year preparatory boarding school, I was no stranger to living away from home by the time I set out for college. This honed experience could easily be gleamed from the fact that my residence hall room was unpacked and set-up a mere hour after arriving. In my mind I was a pro; perhaps that is why the overwhelming anxiety I felt sitting out on the quad for the start of orientation was both surprising and disorienting.
I have often described that moment as the realization that I was a chocolate chip in a cookie. The sun highlighted the multitude of hues for blonde and brunette hair all around me. With each shade my eyes began to adjust to, I found that my chest tightened. In the sixteen years since I graduated college, I have often reflected on that initial moment of fear, intimidation, and isolation I felt. I also have revisited and questioned my description of being a chocolate chip in what I assumed at the time was a chocolate chip cookie formed from a mixture of eager first year students on the quad. I have now begun to wonder if perhaps a more accurate description of the mixture I was swept into was instead that of a sugar cookie. What I still can’t quite determine is whether or not I and the fewer than 50 other students of color that were sprinkled throughout the quad with me were intentionally added chips to enhance and add distinction to the overall cookie or if we were simply chips that fell into the batter, chips that were there but were never intended to change the cookie at all.
Traditionally, Historically Underrepresented Minority (HURM) students are members of groups that have, “historically comprised a minority of the US population” (NACME, 2013). This typically includes African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and Hispanics. A broader definition includes Asian and Pacific Islanders. If we are considering HURM students in the context of certain academic disciplines such as STEM, this definition should evolve to also include women. Simply, a person is considered a HURM if they are a member of a racial or ethnic (or gender) group that has be disproportionately underrepresented for a period of more than ten years. I have been classified as a HURM student throughout my academic career, and now as a faculty member, I still carry that distinction.
The use of population demographics and institutional enrollment to determine who is disproportionately underrepresented is what Milem, Chang, and Antonio (2005) refer to as compositional diversity, one of five institutional practices the authors highlight as critical factors influencing the diversity of a school. By only using this simplistic framework for diversity, making an institution more inclusive rests in the act of enrolling more students like me (i.e., more chips to sprinkle throughout). However, I would argue that compositional diversity only recognizes the “URM” and not “H” or historical perspective that is essential to my ongoing reflection about what type of cookie I stumbled into 20 years ago. To me, a sugar cookie analogy reflects that I was not merely starting my higher education journey at a school that happened to be majority White over the last 10 years; I was at an institution that was historically White. One of the headlines for the student paper announced that my incoming class boasted the largest number of African American students enrolled in a single class in the history of the college. That number was 34. In a class of approximately 500, I along with my fellow self-identified African American or Black American students represented nearly 7 percent of the first year class. To many this is considered a large enough percentage, but for the African American student sitting among the sea of White classmates this percentage left her or him treading water and gasping for air.
Milem, Chang, and Antonio (2005) would also agree with my insistence to focus on the historical aspect of diversity; in fact their second highlighted factor is the historical legacy of inclusion or exclusion at the university. Bourke (2016) continues with this critical lens and further situates the discussion of both which and why certain groups remain a HURM in his piece reflecting on the “Meaning and Implications of Being Labelled a Predominantly White Institution.” He asserts that only when academic institutions move away from simply counting students or “chips” and begin to address the issues of power and privilege both currently in play and historically rooted can a dialogue and plan for transformative equity be enacted. Specifically, Bourke writes that, “Members of underrepresented racial groups are underrepresented not only numerically but also systemically through social structures and the ways in which power is situated among groups.”
Over the next several months I will be focusing on the experience of historically underrepresented students (HURMS) with regard to participation in high-impact practices for student engagement in higher education. Central to these discussion pieces must be the understanding that the current blueprint of enriching academic engagement has centered on the experiences of dominant groups. It was this critical realization and understanding that altered my perception about my first day as an undergraduate student. I did not spend the day in the mix of a chocolate chip cookie, but instead I was in the mix of a sugar cookie, a mixture reflecting decades of bodies, policies, culture, spaces, and practices that were and continue to be historically and predominately White.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.