Beautiful Distinctions

By: Professor Abigail Perdue

America is at a pivotal moment in history. Recently, race, gender, and other relations have been incredibly strained. Communities, both urban and rural, have experienced social turbulence, which at times, has erupted into protests and even violence. From the #MeToo Movement to Black Lives Matter, these issues are surfacing at campuses across America. In light of this, what, if anything, can we, as educators, do to inspire our students to embrace different people and engage different perspectives, rather than fear and suppress them?

Grappling with this difficult but important question prompted me to develop a new spring course — Exploring Diversity and Discrimination. During our first session, we explore legal dictionaries, case law, and secondary sources to define the term “diversity” and ultimately conclude that it eludes singular definition. Using seminal affirmative action cases like Fisher, Gratz, and Grutter, which state that achieving the educational benefits of diversity constitutes a compelling government interest, we engage in a discussion of what diversity means, how it can be examined holistically, and why it is beneficial in a classroom and workplace setting. As students call out various aspects of identity that can provide a diverse perspective, I write them up on the board. Common examples include age, race, national origin, religious affiliation, skin color, political affiliation, geographical background, familial status, work experience, educational experience, socioeconomic background, marital status, sex, gender identity, height, weight, college major, sexual orientation, and whether the individual is a person with a disability.

To transform the amorphous concept of “diversity” into something more tangible that students can visualize, we end our class by collectively creating a “diversity diagram.” To do this, I provide each student with a black, permanent marker and at least twenty small pieces of colored paper. These pieces come in everything from lime green to hot pink. I ask each student to think about the diverse perspectives he or she will bring to our classroom discussions because of the student’s unique personal identity, which involves the intersection of aspects of subjective identity like religious affiliation and gender as well as the student’s discrete set of personal experiences. Then I instruct students to jot down one perspective on each slip of paper. I space the students out so that they have privacy as they reflect on this question and record their responses. In the past, I’ve given them between fifteen and twenty minutes for the exercise, and students often ask for additional slips of paper, which I happily provide.

At the end of class, I collect the slips of paper into a large envelope, so that they are aggregated in a form that maintains anonymity. Then I purchase a large piece of neon cardboard and use a glue stick to paste on the various traits for that year’s class. As I do this, I try to eliminate duplicates, such as “female,” “international student,” “twenty-something,” etc. Yet even that exercise is valuable for me because it underscores that even in a class of unique individuals, the students, some of whom are meeting for the first time, often have far more in common than they might realize. At the same time, however, they offer a multitude of distinct viewpoints. The illustrative diversity diagram, pictured below, perfectly captures just how many diverse and valuable perspectives exist in a single, small seminar of law students. It further demonstrates that “diversity” may encompass more traits than those protected by law.

A Diversity Diagram from a Past Seminar

I begin our next class by showing the collective diagram to the students and allowing them to pass it around and reflect on it. This generally launches a robust discussion regarding the importance of considering diversity holistically. Visualizing and then celebrating diversity in this way reinforces that every student is unique, and their diverse perspectives are all enriching and important. In fact, these beautiful distinctions are what make our class so special. How do you encourage your students to appreciate and learn from difference rather than fear and denigrate it?

For other innovative teaching ideas, be on the lookout for my new book, Exploring Diversity and Discrimination, which is forthcoming from Carolina Academic Press.

Share our content!