Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #1: Are Diversity and Inclusion Efforts in Higher Education Working? An Intercultural Communication Perspective

February 1, 2014
Intercultural Communication

While colleges and universities across the nation have tried to focus on intercultural communication issues by incorporating diversity and inclusion programs, threats to student cultural identity remain. In fact, black students who attend predominantly white universities struggle to acclimate to what they perceive as a different culture, where they feel a lack of intercultural understanding and racial tension.

Our research revealed that African-American students still face major challenges at predominantly white institutions of higher education in America. They are conflicted about integrating into the dominant culture while honoring their own culture and black pride.

Some of the 67 black students surveyed at three major universities said they felt they could not survive in the white world without altering their language or culture, a change they found undesirable. One student participant stated, "The only time I am asked to speak is if an issue about slavery or the ghettos enters the realm of conversation. I wasn't around for slavery. I don't live in a ghetto. I have other thoughts, but they don't seem important to anyone else. So why bother to talk at all?"

As a group, African-American students wanted to assimilate into their respective universities, but at the same time they expressed a need to maintain cultural independence by segregating from them. The need to segregate was born out of a fear the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.

Our study took place at Midwest and Southwest universities—one private and two public—whose student populations were made up of only 4.5 to 8 percent blacks. Thirty-nine black undergraduate students participated in focus groups, and 28 black students participated in individual interviews, with the number of male and female students almost even. Participants were asked about their quality of life at their university, their program needs, the presence of racism on campus, and the effects of their experiences as minority students.

Surveyed students reported feeling different from their white peers in thought, language, dress, classroom behavior, and socializing. We believe this finding suggests these black students see themselves as cultural visitors.

 Another student participant said, "We read a book by Toni Morrison. The professor discussed the importance of the book for African-Americans. I wanted to stand up and talk about Morrison's writing and how it really resonates within the African-American community. At the same time, I did not want to perpetuate stereotypes or draw attention to myself as a black man trying to explain a black writer to a white audience."

Study participants reported a lack of understanding about their own culture from non-blacks at the university. The lack of understanding led to the students feeling singled out in the classroom. Some students reportedly felt frustrated when they alone were responsible for educating whites about African-American issues. They also felt offended when they were asked to share their thoughts only about African-American topics.

In addition, some students felt a lack of social support from their families. Of the 67 subjects, 52 were first-generation college students whose family members often did not understand their university experience or their goal of a college degree, the investigators reported. Because some of these parents did not want to visit the university, we recommend university personnel go to the communities in an effort to include these parents in university relations.

Recommendations for the Future 

To address diversity and inclusion challenges, we believe an important first step is for administrators of predominantly white universities to admit their relationships with black students need attention. In addition, we recommend the following:

-Academia must implement curricular and administrative changes to foster a more positive university experience for African-American students.

-Predominantly white universities must act as relational partners with African-American students to create a more intellectually and culturally rich experience for students, faculty, and administrators.

-Colleges and universities should encourage white students and students of color to jointly develop multicultural programs that aim to improve understanding between different ethnicities and races.

-Colleges and universities must make a commitment to provide instructors with training on cultural diversity inclusion and ways to address racial tensions.

About the author (s)

Shawn T. Wahl

Missouri State University

Department Head

Jake Simmons

Angelo State University

Assistant Professor