Let’s be honest for a moment. Diversity is messy. There is no getting around it. While we talk about the benefits of diversity and its importance in accurately reflecting a community, the bottom line remains. The messiness of diversity is what drives many student and professional journalists to look the other way.
Those who pursue diversity in coverage and in a journalism curriculum know the deep morass that waits, despite planning and precautions. Last year at a Poynter Institute seminar called “Teaching Diversity Across the Curriculum,” I had the pleasure of meeting Kim Golombisky, assistant professor in the school of communications at the University of South Florida, who gave some sage advice: “Put on your safety goggles.”
As much as I hate mess, I dislike the alternative even more: inaccurate coverage, cross-cultural miscommunication, news stories that lack nuance and depth. This is how I present the importance of diversity in my class. But the biggest challenge I face in teaching diversity (even in San Francisco) is getting students to see that a problem exists and that they, too, have cultural filters that are always at work. Just last week, I gave students a reading titled “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum.
This reading offers a psychological perspective on how we form racial identity and, hence, racial bias. When I asked students to talk about their impressions from the reading, one student said, “It was powerful.” Detecting a subtext in his answer, I asked, “Powerful in what way?” He was uncomfortable, perhaps because I am African-American, and he is white, and he felt he was afraid of sounding racist. Or maybe he was uncomfortable because the class was mixed with Asian, African American, Native American, white and mixed race students. As soon as I registered his discomfort, I felt myself stepping in the mess and worried I would slip at any moment. “Well, right away I thought of affirmative action,” he said.
I was neither prepared nor willing to take the class through a debate about affirmative action. Yet, I was curious how he got from a reading about racial identity to affirmative action. In the subtext of his response I read, “This is a bunch of hooey that’s just trying to make a case for affirmative action.” Before I got into that debate I had to correct myself, remembering this is not about affirmative action, this is about reporting a community accurately. I took a deep breath and moved on to another student, making sure not to invalidate his feelings.
I have stepped in bigger messes over the years. While teaching a public journalism course a few years ago, I encountered a near classroom mutiny.
I was a novice at addressing diversity in reporting. I had asked the students to cover a meeting I had organized with community members, most of whom were African-American.
The neighborhood, called the Bayview Hunters Point, is predominately African-American, with growing Latino and Asian populations. At the meeting, community members complained that racism was the reason the neighborhood had been neglected over the years.
They offered examples, yet, when students turned in their meeting stories, not one mentioned racism. “I’m a white girl. What do I know about racism?” said one student, explaining why she avoided the topic.
The experience taught me this: I had to better prepare students before immersing them in unknown cultural, racial and ethnic territories. Difference isn’t just about race; it’s also about religion, class, disability, sexual orientation, politics and cultural customs. Now I have them write a cultural autobiography and explain how their background might affect their journalism. Many of my classroom exercises (including discussions, readings and personal essays) push students toward cultural self-awareness.
In another exercise, students examine their own privilege. This is a tricky one for some minority students who feel that whites have all the privilege.
But I encourage students to think about class, sexual orientation and religion. Then I remind them that they have the privilege of pursuing higher education, a pathway to class privilege. Some students see their privilege immediately. Others are defiant, in which case I step back and put on my goggles.
Tagged under: diversity