Essentializing Racial and Ethnic Identity (in Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education)

BY: Gutiérrez, Kris D., Paguyo, C., & Mendoza, L

This entry approaches the issue of essentializing racial and ethnic identity through a discussion of diversity, which helps illustrate the ways that reductive notions of racial and ethnic communities, their practices, and peoples are indexed in the public sphere. This entry locates the notion of diversity as central to a democratic education and examines the prevailing discursive frameworks that have given meaning to how diversity has been understood across disciplinary domains. Thus, the tensions, range of uses, and intentions of the concept of diversity—especially in everyday, legal, academic, and educational discourses and practices—are necessarily addressed.

From a legal studies perspective, for example, Neil Gotanda discusses a precedent for the use of the concept of diversity as a basis for consideration of race in college admissions set by the Supreme Court; diversity became the word of art in the touchstone affirmative action cases ofRegents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), and the Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) andGratz v. Bollinger (2003) decisions. The use of the construct of diversity also has become a commonplace in educational scholarship, reflecting a wide range of meanings, including the more standard definitions that can refer to the state of being diverse, variety in things and species, as well as the inherent diversity/variance across a broad spectrum of categories. Diversity also can refer to the inclusion of people of different races and cultures in settings to promote heterogeneity. This latter notion of diversity as a property of racial and ethnic communities remains ubiquitous in public discourse, new media, popular culture, and educational domains, and in many instances the term has lost its meaning, utility, and significance.

Consider the history of the term in contemporary educational literature. James Banks, for example, discusses how modern notions of diversity emerging from scholars of color, their communities, and allies in the 1960s and 1970s challenged prevailing canons and prototypes characteristic of Western empiricism; instead, this counterview advocated for the integration of multicultural content in academic curriculum. Subsequently, Benjamin Baez noted that in the 1980s, the concept of diversity became increasingly linked to the celebration of heterogeneity in race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, socioeconomic background, ability, language, and sexual orientation. As a result,diversity quickly became a buzzword and remains a pervasive term in educational scholarship andpractice. At the same time, diversity became a descriptor or referent for populations of students or communities of color. More recently, the term nondominant communities has been proffered by Kris Gutiérrez and Shirin Vossoughi to more directly address asymmetrical distributions of power among members of different communities. Within this historical context, this entry examines the construct of diversity, challenges its use vis-à-vis nondominant communities, and reframes diversity as a democratic ideal and as a resource for promoting transformative forms of learning.

Historically, this understanding of diversity as a democratic ideal is not new, as it was first advanced by the ancient Greeks and subsequently appropriated across cultural-historical time. Michele Moses writes how social and intellectual communities—including sociology, literature, philosophy, government, and education—have advanced the link between democracy and education, and this relationship has held particular significance in the history of struggle for educational equity in U.S. education. Such an interpretation of democracy draws on dynamic conceptions of diversity and necessarily exploits heterogeneity to bring poly-cultural solutions to growing diasporic communities in the United States.

Mike Rose helps situate the ideals of a democratic education in the ways opportunities for children are defined and structured, in the responses to a child’s learning, and in how heterogeneity and difference in human activity are viewed and valued. For John Dewey, a democratic education nurtures perspective taking, that is, seeing one’s worldview in relation to others, as well as the diversity of thought. From this perspective, diversity becomes a democratic ideal and a resource instrumental to achieving educational equity. As an ideological concept, diversity has material consequences on educational policy and practice.

Book and PDF copy available through Sage.

Network Members