Telling The Story Of The Group

Raise your hand if you've been to diversity camp!


You know - sometime during the academic year, your department head or dean announces there's going to be a diversity meeting/seminar/retreat. People grudgingly attend, they do some exercises to maybe show them just how prejudiced they actually are, they're told Diversity is Good!, and there's a little talk about how they can be more supportive of diversity. Everybody goes home feeling like they wasted an hour or day or weekend of their lives, and nothing substantially changes. No one has addressed why resistance to diversity is so prevalent, strong, and durable. Nobody explains how resistance to diversity is a common and indeed predictable reaction of in-groups when told they need to embrace members of the out-group.

The resistance I'm talking about is not just a matter of an individual's prejudice. Anyone who is part of the in-group, or identifies with the in-group, will understand (consciously or unconsciously) the group as possessing certain qualities, all of which are extremely wonderful and therefore threatened by infiltration of out-group members. The group has a stake in deciding who's 'us', and who's 'them'; in defending the boundary of the group; and in idealizing the group characteristics. Resistance to diversity is not (only) about an individual's prejudices; it's about group members' reaction to what they perceive as a threat to the integrity and quality of the group.

Group leaders can be just about anyone, not only those in official positions. Administrators, professors, students, co-workers can function in a leadership role. One of the things group leaders do is "tell the story" of the group: who we are, what we value. This can be as varied as a dean's welcoming statement on the college website or students telling geek jokes to one another that illustrate common attributes of the group.

Sometimes group leaders explicitly espouse diversity as a value, but implicitly undercut the message and communicate to the group at large that diversity is not a value. Often they aren't aware of how certain messages they send are received and interpreted. What they say may sound ostensibly like it has nothing to do with diversity. For example:

"Engineers are the best and the brightest; our students are the cream of the crop."

Here's a specific instance in which this message is proclaimed while explicitly invoking diversity as a good:

Recognizing that 'science must be an elitist enterprise' because 'it needs the very best minds' does not mean that we must discourage or turn away potential scientists because they don't fit a mold to which we have become accustomed.

What's wrong with bragging about your students? Why shouldn't a leader proclaim intellectual superiority as part of the group story?

Statements like these imply that "the very best minds" are already doing science and engineering, and anything that those "others" have to offer can be accepted only at risk to the group. The story of the group that gets told, despite the explicit words, is that the group is ideal as it is, we are smarter than outsiders, the kinds of people smart enough to be scientists and engineers are already here.

No wonder calls for diversity are met with cries of "we have to defend the standards!" and "Science is a meritocracy, let's evaluate people on merit not on gender or race." Those people you want to let in this group aren't likely to be good enough; if they were, they'd already be here!

How should a leader who is committed to diversity avoid this pitfall? Don't say "engineers/scientists are the cream of the crop". Try "Engineers/scientists work hard and solve important problems."

Here's another one to avoid: "Some of our best students are women/minorities!" Try instead "Women and minorities succeed in our program." Thus you convey an image of a program that welcomes all and supports success, rather than one that has a few token Others that have somehow managed to do amazingly well despite what you'd expect.

There will always be resistance to diversity, and we would do well to acknowledge and explore that resistance - what it means, what we should do about it. A group leader should strive to make sure that explicit and implicit messages about the group are coherent. Otherwise(1),

...the mixed message presented by the call for diversity in a culture that holds the superiority myth reinforces durable unconscious convictions about the unfitness of underrepresented group members rather than challenging them. With idealizing convictions reinforced in this manner, hortatory messages about the goods to be derived from diversity are unconvincing. Diversity is likely to be dismissed by those who have received the "real" underlying message: group members must be on the alert to defend the boundaries of their empire of worth against the unworthy interlopers. Once mixed messages of superiority and the mandate toward diversity are broadcast, in-group members can hardly be blamed for believing that their leaders are not serious about diversity. Trusted leaders will not betray and damage the group by insisting on admitting the unqualified, or so the group will believe. And we should not be surprised when group members act in accordance with this belief in a variety of ways that include ridicule, sabotage, scapegoating, and racial or sexual harassment. These strategies are common tools in the arsenal of group conflict. These particular tools have a long history in American social, political, and economic life as ways of marginalizing and controlling disempowered groups such as men and women of color and white women. But the tools may be wielded effectively whenever there are in-groups and out-groups, regardless of the particular identities of those involved. It is actual or perceived power, insider status and /or a sense of threat, and not whiteness, maleness, or any other particular identity formation, that situates groups to employ such strategies effectively.

The story of diversity is not that white males are bad, it's a story of a power struggle. In-group members will have to yield their myth of superiority, and group leaders will have to help them in yielding gracefully.

(1) Quote from Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity in NWSA Journal v. 16 No. 1, 2004 (Re)Gendering Science Fields.

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If I hear one more time "We just couldn't find anyone (black, female, of a minority ethnic group not including Chinese) who was QUALIFIED enough" or "We can't compromise our standards simply for the sake of some token effort at diversity..." - I may gouge my eyes out with a spoon. No, wait, I may gouge THEIR eyes out with a spoon.

I should add, I say Chinese only because of the huge huge percentage of our faculty who are. They are not exactly under-represented around here. But I meant *here* specifically for that comment.

I love the comments about meritocracy, personally. I really like saying something like, "Oh yeah, I'm all for meritocracy. Let's have some damn meritocracy instead of what's currently going on, which is that people like me have to work twice as hard and be twice as competent to get half as far." Then I start whipping statistics on them. Funny how I keep winning arguments that way... *mutter*

I personally don't think we're ever going to get rid of in/out-group dynamics; the key is, I guess, to get people to redefine the in-group in a more inclusive fashion, and to subvert the power struggle into aiming for a common goal.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

The system is great for eliminating false positives. It sucks on eliminating false negatives. Basically it selects for people with a high tolerance for abuse and no personal life. On second thought, thinking about some of my colleagues strike the first sentence.

Yesterday we visited the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla. The grounds are very difficult to navigate with a wheelchair and the gift shop is completely inaccessible. In the afternoon, however, we went to Jockey's Ridge, which has a wonderful boardwalk out to an overlook of the dune. The only rough spot was where some sand had drifted over the boardwalk and we got a little bogged down, but my sister and I were able to push/pull the chair through the sand.