Having grown up in Tokyo, a racially and ethnically homogeneous city, I had a utopian image of American society before arriving here. I thought in the United States, people respected all kinds of social differences, including race, ethnicity, and nationality. Unfortunately, the reality was far from my imagination; the affluent American society I was exposed to at my boarding school was surprisingly homogeneous. I constantly felt a strong pressure to be like my peers, most of whom were wealthy white students from the East Coast. In fact, I still feel a similar pressure at the small liberal arts college I currently attend.
Why was there such a large discrepancy between what I believed and what I experienced in terms of racial and ethnic diversity in elite higher education?
One important reason I thought was the schools’ focus on the numbers of racial diversity. Stevens (2007) shows interesting examples of how colleges use statistical figures that are “the most flattering,” “accurate,” and “defensible (47)” in order to improve their image. The statistic on diversity is no exception. Some colleges “round up” the number of students from underrepresented groups. Other colleges in their pictures on recruiting materials include proportionally more minority students, especially African Americans, than are actually attending the school (Pippert, Essenburg, and Matchett 2013).
By focusing on surface-level representations of minority students, elite schools overlook a crucial piece in diversity: student experience. Unfortunately, superficial forms of diversity do not automatically translate into positive experiences for students from underrepresented backgrounds in historically white academic institutions. Warikoo and Deckman (2014), for example, show that students from two equally “diverse” schools in terms of numbers of underrepresented groups of students have completely different experiences with respect to integration into campus life. What determines the student experiences is how each school approaches the topic of diversity.
One school takes the Integration and Celebration approach. This school focuses on racial integration and offers events for all students to enjoy learning about different cultures. Consequently, both white and minority students in this school have positive experiences with regards to social diversity. However, since the school does not offer much programming to educate students on the structural racial inequalities, students often do not develop the ability to critically address those issues in a deeper way.
The other school takes the Power Analysis and Minority Support approach. This school focuses on the needs of minority students. It offers programming for minority students on the systems of racial oppression. Unfortunately, this programming creates a division among students. Minority students who actively participate in diversity programming, feel empowered by the knowledge and skills they gain in understanding how racial inequalities operate. Other mainly white students who do not participate in diversity programming feel marginalized and frustrated by the division that such programming creates.
The takeaway point from this comparison is that numerical diversity does not tell the whole story. It does not reflect college policies and campus cultural climates that significantly impact students’ experience and quality of life on campus. Although numerical diversity is an important step towards true diversity, it is not enough. It is time for us move beyond numbers and promote efforts in inclusion and education on structural inequalities for all students in elite higher education, regardless of their racial, ethnic, national, socioeconomic, sexual, or any other identities.