Sandra Graham: Reclaiming the Value of Diversity

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with Sandra Graham, a professor of education at UCLA where she holds the University of California Presidential Chair in Education and Diversity.  Dr. Graham studies academic motivation and social development in children of color, particularly in school contexts that vary in racial and ethnic diversity.  She received the 2014 E.L. Thorndike Career Award from the American Psychological Association for distinguished contributions to educational psychology and is a member of the National Academy of Education.  Sandra Graham also currently serves as the Chair of the UCLA Faculty Senate.


John Rogers: May 17th will be the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that all students should be educated on equal terms, and that the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race violates that principle. A baby born on the date of that decision would be eligible for Social Security today. Although much changed in the first decades after Brown, the press for desegregation stalled in the late 1980s and 1990s.  The courts and many political leaders moved away from the ideal of diversity as a central principle for organizing public schools in the United States. Now, fast forward to the present and some of the research that you and others have been doing points to the continuing importance of diversity in education when certain conditions are met. What do you see as the potential benefits associated with more racially diverse schools, and what conditions need to be in place for those benefits to play out?

Sandra Graham: I see there being two big challenges in our country and globally related to diversity in the 21st century. First, how are we going to help the next generation learn tolerance, and help them get along with those who are different from them? The second big challenge is, how are we going to ensure equal access to social resources, including high quality schools for everybody? So, access to resources and learning how to get along with people who are different from us are two critical challenges of the 21st century within increasingly diverse societies. Some of this certainly has to be done in the schools, because this is where young people are exposed to diversity, which is the first step to becoming tolerant. This exposure also helps young people begin to understand how resources are allocated, as well as notions of fairness and equity.

Most people emphasize the academic benefits of diverse schools, and we know that these are significant because more diverse schools tend to be more socioeconomically advantaged, which means they also have more resources. We know about the academic benefits, but the societal benefits that I study are really critical at this age—it’s when young people really begin to grasp the importance of access to resources and learning to get along with people who are different from you. The schools have a role to play in helping our next generation understand these two big challenges.

How do diverse schools make a difference? In what ways do young people benefit when they attend school with peers from different backgrounds?

Well, going back to Brown versus Board of Education, a lot of the psychological research that advocated for desegregating schools was based on the notion of contact, which comes from social psychology. You have contact with people who are different from you and that, hopefully, will lead to better attitudes about racial attitudes. In the 1950s, this was really framed as having to do with black-white relations. And of course, certain conditions have to be present. There has to be equal status, and students have to work towards a common goal. But when kids go to a diverse school, the likelihood increases that they will make friends with people from different racial ethnic groups, and friendships are one of the conditions required for contact to have its desired effect. It’s a pathway to learn, and to develop better attitudes about not necessarily the individuals that you become friends with, but about the group to which that person belongs.

Most of the research in this area has tended to focus on race. Research also needs to focus on other forms of identity as well, but right now the research isn’t there to tell us what it means to have friends of different social class backgrounds. I see this as an opportunity to really develop relationships with people who are different from you, and that is the root to developing better attitudes about groups that are not your own group.

When people come together, it can lead to friendship and greater understanding, or it can lead to conflict.

It certainly can.

What conditions do you see as being important in promoting the former rather than the latter?

There has been a lot of research that has looked at this question. As diversity increases, friendships increase as well. But when there are two big groups, there can be tension and disparities between in-groups and out-groups. For the contact-friendship effect to really unfold, one condition needed is to have multiple groups, and multiple groups of the same size. Multiple racial and ethnic groups that are all about the same size are a hallmark of diversity.

Much has been studied and written about tracking, which undermines the likelihood of forming friendships with people who are different from you. We need schools that don’t practice sorting people in their classes by their academic achievement. I think one of the more important recent findings in our own work is that a school can be very diverse and have all of these conditions that I think are important, but when you look at what kids are doing throughout the day, their exposure in their classes and their everyday experiences occur in very homogeneous contexts. We can’t stop with the school when we look at these issues. Focusing only on a school’s diversity assumes that the experiences are the same for every student, and of course that’s not true. We have to really look at an individual level at what students experience throughout the day, in their classrooms, in PE, in the lunchroom, and so forth. How much are they really having an opportunity to interact with people who are different from them? Often the ways we experience diversity in everyday life are much different from the ways we experience diversity in schools, and we need to pay attention to that when we think about fostering an environment that encourages more cross-group interaction.

Some of your recent work has also attended to extracurricular spaces as part of that mix.

The reason for this is because extracurricular activities can become very racialized, particularly when you create academic classes that are tracked. You end up having PE and art and music with the same kids. People have studied extracurricular activities in great detail and find that the ones oriented to academics are sometimes more likely to have white and Asian kids in them. In the performing arts you’re more likely to see diversity, and certainly in sports, but sports can also be very racialized. We know from some of our own research in middle schools that participating in extracurricular activities that have ethnically diverse members is related to better attitudes about different ethnic groups.

One of the conditions for the contact hypothesis to really have an effect is, on top of equal status and sharing a common goal, there has to be the support of authority for diversity, too. As they help kids create their schedules and choose their non-academic courses, they need to be taking these things into consideration: how diverse are these activities? What’s the true exposure to diversity throughout the day?

It seems like you’re saying that a school leadership team needs to be very sensitive to academic tracking, as it undercuts the benefits of diversity. And they also need to encourage diversity in other activities that young people participate in outside the classroom.  But how should school leaders balance the need to give students space so that they can forge their own identities, along with the goal of enabling young people to interact across diverse spaces?

It is a challenge. Even though we talk a lot about the value of forming friendships with people who are different from you, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t have friends of the same race or ethnicity. One of the key challenges of diversity comes from recognizing the tension between the need to enable young people to have these interactions, as you’ve stated, and their own preferences and choices. This is especially true when we’re talking about members of marginalized groups, whose surest way to find support is to hang out with people who share their common plight. You can’t try to undermine that or do things to compromise this basic need, which everybody has.

Our research team has begun to focus on how particular teachers impact the school’s racial climate. Do teachers encourage kids who are different from one another to interact? There is an effort by these teachers to create a certain culture and climate. They exhibit a certain sensitivity. They encourage the kid who wants to try out for the lacrosse team, even though they don’t know anybody who’s ever played lacrosse. Sometimes though I think teachers inadvertently undermine students’ wishes to step out and cross racial boundaries. We have to be careful that we don’t undermine our kid’s willingness to sort of try out crossing boundaries and teachers can do that, too.

This is making me think of how important it is to change the sorts of outcomes that educators are attending to—to focus on shared or collective goals as well as individual academic attainment.

That’s right. We are starting to think about collective goals in terms of civic engagement and social responsibility, and in our work we’re finding preliminarily that the kids who have had more opportunities not only take up the opportunities by choice, but are more likely to be civically engaged. These opportunities make people more aware of the societal challenges of diversity. Now, that’s not going to be true for everybody; for some people, it makes them more entrenched in their in-group/ out-group distinctions. Obviously the neighborhood and their families are contributors. We certainly recognize that, but I just think that there’s a lot more schools can do to raise consciousness about the importance of social relationships. Every school really wants to help kids, but I’m talking about creating this next generation of socially responsible adults who are going to have to live in this diverse world. And this is what I think truly diverse schools have the potential to do: they can help raise our consciousness and help develop socially responsible young adults.

An argument could be made that the skills, attributes, and commitments that are associated with being socially responsible and appreciative of diverse relationships are also aligned with certain modes of inquiry, and of learning and communication—which are not entirely separate spheres from academic development.

Well, I haven’t thought about that. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’re thinking?

It goes back to certain principles John Dewey put forward in Democracy and Education about what it means for students to learn democratically.  Dewey was interested in the ways that people come together to address shared problems. He envisioned the ideal schools as places where students have opportunities to identify, investigate, and talk about issues with others who already share many of their interests as well as with people who bring different backgrounds and experiences.  This sort of engagement, he reasoned, enhanced learning and strengthened democracy. 

You know, that raises for me an important point: it’s true that anybody can become a socially conscious, responsible person outside of school. But, given the power of those seven or eight hours during the day and the importance of peers—because for adolescents, so much of their life really is their peer group and the larger peer context—anything that we can do to capitalize on the natural, developmental tendency to want to connect with other people, we need to be doing more of in our schools.

I wanted to pick up on an intriguing concept that some of your recent work draws upon that I hadn’t encountered before—the idea of complex social identities. I’m hoping you can describe it a bit, and also help us understand if this is what we want young people to be moving toward?

It’s a perfect kind of construct to study during adolescence, because so much experience during that period is about identity and figuring things out and weighing choices. How do you quantify all the identities that are important to you? Developmental researchers haven’t really addressed that. They acknowledge that kids have a racial identity and an athletic identity and an academic one. All of these identities are very important, but how do they fit together? That’s a challenge that developmental psychologists haven’t really addressed, so we were drawn to this concept of social identity complexity. It comes from adult social psychology, in part because the researchers linked it to improving adults’ attitudes about out-groups. The idea is that you have many important identities, but there is not complete overlap in the people you interact with through each of these identities. For instance, I’m an academic and an African American woman, but not all Black women are academics. My identities are not completely overlapping. Any group will be an in-group or an out-group at particular times depending on which identity is most salient to you—the boundaries are permeable. When these boundaries are not permeable, that’s when negative attitudes become entrenched. We have found that kids who have complex identities are more likely to be in diverse schools and participate in diverse extracurricular activities, and they’re more likely to have better attitudes about other groups. Also, when you think about it in terms of mental health outcomes, if you have multiple identities that are not too overlapping, when one identity presents problems, there are others to turn to. If my academic identity is suffering, I have other identity groups that I can turn to.

As I was reading this work it also struck me that there are potential advantages for raising critical consciousness. The fact that young people hold multiple social identities may help them recognize that the value granted particular identities is related to how closely these identities are aligned with various structures of power.

Yes, I think it definitely has that potential. We haven’t thought about it in that way, but it does have a lot of connections to this area of critical consciousness. I think that’s absolutely correct and true, but our focus has been on the idea that’s there a way to organize the identities that are important to adolescents, and how they’re organized has meaning for the kinds of outcomes we’re interested in. I’m not arguing that you’re going to do better in school if you have a complex identity, but I do think you’re going to have better attitudes towards others. So, when you’re in a challenging situation, you can turn to some of your other identity groups and are then able to cope with the situation better.

For teachers and principals who are thinking about the complex identities of their students, how can they organize schools in ways that would facilitate and nurture them?

Well, they have to create opportunities. They can’t cluster all the students who share one identity together all day, because it results in very little overlap in their identity groups. Buying into this notion and recognizing it’s importance means approaching instruction and school operations overall in such ways that kids have opportunities to develop these complex social identities. They also have to be thinking about schools and spaces for extracurricular activities as important places where kids can begin to see in-groups and out-groups as fluid. That’s what it really is about. Creating in-groups and out-groups that are very fluid and flexible. So kids’ lives have to be organized in a way that they can see that.

It pushes against the bureaucratic impulse to create structures that serve narrow groups efficiently, so to speak.

Yes, definitely. The guiding assumption is that kids have to be in contexts where they can develop these complex identities.

Which seems extremely important in cities like Los Angeles that are incorporating newcomers, where a majority of students are either entering school as English learners or whose parents are not native English speakers.

Again, I talk a lot about race, but that’s not the only identity that’s important in thinking about the complexities of social identities. It’s also important to think about values, cultural background, sociocultural status, gender, and so many others. There are so many important identities in childhood and adolescence that require us to help kids develop them in healthy ways, so they see them as complex rather than simple. It doesn’t all have to be focused on race, which is sort of our default: “Well, my school’s all Latino. What can I do to incorporate some things that are important for Latinos?” I want kids to have multiple ways to find their niche and fit in. We have to think about not only race but all the other kinds of differences amongst people that can be nurtured in school. And focusing on these same processes and mechanisms can be done in schools that aren’t racially and ethnically diverse, too.

Let me pivot to a related line of your work that considers the ways young people encounter bullying, discrimination, and forms of racial hostility in schools. Under what conditions does having a diverse environment help address some of those potential threats?

One very robust finding in the adolescent discrimination literature is that numerical size makes a difference.  When your group is smaller than other groups, you’re going to experience more discrimination and more bullying. When a school has more diversity, you’re not going to have groups that are vulnerable because they are the tiny numerical minorities.

Even though there are other benefits of diversity, one of the challenges of diverse schools is that sometimes students feel these schools are less fair. For example, if an African American student moves from a predominantly African American middle school to a very diverse high school, he is likely to report more discrimination in that diverse school, as the size of his group has shrunk.

Similarly, when the societally dominant group shifts to become the numerical minority, they perceive an increase in discrimination. There’s something at work as the size of your group shrinks. It may make people more hyper-vigilant, or make them stand out more to teachers or other kids, which can increase feelings of vulnerability. We don’t fully understand what all the mechanisms are, but this is what’s happening in our society.

In other words, some may be objectively privileged, but by losing some of that privilege, they can feel a sense of unfairness.

Yes, and that’s what’s happening. Many whites experience the shrinking size of their group as a threat. I think that there’s something really important about numerical representation that will cut across all races. We don’t know yet. We’re just beginning to unpack that.

Given that, it seems then really important to have adults who are thoughtful about enabling and supporting young people as they transition to even more diverse settings.

You have to embrace the benefits of diversity, but you have to always be aware of the challenges, too. If I am a principal of a diverse school with lots of kids coming from schools where their group was the majority, I have to be aware of this. I need to see if I can prevent or minimize the effects of the shrinking size of that group. You certainly don’t want to segregate these kids in their classes, which would be the worst thing that you could do. It might be easy to think, “Well, we’re being protective. We’re going to ease the transition and make sure when they’re transitioning that they’re with the kids who are like them.” You certainly don’t want to segregate these kids in their classes. It perpetuates the sense of being a numerical minority.

It does seem like the extent to which more diverse schools lift up the values of a complex social identity, they are also attending to some of the challenges that these transitions bring.

School transitions are challenging for everybody, but there are some unique things that have to do with race, ethnicity, and group size. We need to be especially attuned to those things. I think that’s really important. We’ve seen this in our research: kids that transition to schools where their primary group size shrinks are less likely to feel that they belong. I don’t know exactly what schools need to be doing, but they need to be aware that this is a clear, developmental phenomenon and a very robust finding in the discrimination and the belonging literature.

I was thinking about one of your findings about the problems associated with bullying when there is one dominant group. One of the central findings from my study of teaching and learning in America’s high schools in the wake of Trump’s election, was that in predominantly white high schools, the incidences of racial hostility, insensitivity, and incivility just skyrocketed.

Trump normalized it. That’s what his election did, and it’s made people more willing to be open with it. We’re still living with the consequences of that, so our job is even made more compelling and challenging by the fact that the sentiments attached to his election have exacerbated the white fear of becoming a numerical minority. There’s so much focus on the fact that by 2040, whites will be a numerical minority. All of his discourse just exacerbates fears of the loss of status and loss of power.

What emerges is a strange and dangerous mix of fear and emboldening. Given this moment that we’re in, what can educators do to reclaim the positive benefits of diverse interactions?

Well, there needs to be conversation, and they really need to do away with instructional practices that enhance the separation of groups, even in diverse schools. There needs to be conversations about the importance of being with people who are not like you and the value of crossing identity boundaries. It has to concern everyday practices where people are interacting and solving problems together, which increases collective identities. Create opportunities for kids to work on something that’s common, where everybody has a contribution to make. Another thing is the need to create equal status, because interacting with others works better when there’s a perception of equal status. Teachers in schools can do things that emphasize and value these interactions and provide more opportunities for them to occur.

As I’m hearing you describe all of this, I can’t help but think that these things don’t happen very often. And I wonder why this is so difficult to enact? Part of the answer may relate to bureaucratic structures that place young people in narrow categories, but part of it is also related to a set of rewards, and the ways in which schools are set up as sites of competition. Our university systems are certainly complicit in this reward structure. Is it possible to incentivize schools to develop the capacities that are enhanced by diversity in schools?

That’s a great question. If we could show that all of the benefits of diversity that I’m talking about also impact academic achievement, and other indicators of academic or occupational success, then that also encourages and incentivizes teachers to do that. I don’t know how you do that. I would love to sit around and have conversations, deep conversations with school personnel in thinking about that.

I think educators are often afraid, just like parents are. I use the example of myself as a parent; when my kids were going to school and truly were the numerical minority, I cautioned them against crossing racial boundaries because I didn’t want them to feel discriminated against or harassed or marginalized. I think we’re not comfortable as a society in thinking about the richness of diversity. And some teachers may be that way, too. We’re afraid of the consequences, or we don’t believe in it deeply enough ourselves, because at the end of the day we all feel like we are probably better off hanging out with people who are more similar to us. I think it requires a real societal shift in values and attitudes and a willingness to cross boundaries ourselves. Until we’re comfortable with this ourselves, it will be difficult to organize school life in ways that facilitate this for children.

Part of what I’m hearing you say is that educators themselves need to practice interacting across spaces where they’re not necessarily comfortable.

Yes, and there has to be some discomfort in this for people to really understand the benefits and challenges. I think that’s a good way to put it. Educators need practice in crossing boundaries because in our lives, many of us don’t. We go home to our communities and our own narrow significant reference groups and for many people, they often just aren’t that diverse. So it’s hard for us, once we get beyond our work life, to really see the value of this at a deep level.

This makes me think of something that Sylvia Rousseau—the renowned school and district leader–once said. She made the point that if our diverse interactions always make different people merely uncomfortable, people will invariably back away. Which means that we need to create opportunities where people engage with one another, and perhaps feel some discomfort, but also move toward a space that’s enlivening and energizing at the same time.

That’s exactly what needs to happen. This happens even in the academy. It’s not always along race lines, but there’s a lot of identity marginalization and segregation, and we see it in our lives as scholars. We don’t want to cross boundaries; we’re afraid or reluctant or uncomfortable. Until we are able to do that, how are we going to encourage our own graduate students to cross intellectual or disciplinary or methodological boundaries, when we can’t do it ourselves?

Here’s my last question. Given the social dynamics we are now living in, what is it that makes you hopeful at this moment?

Even though it’s challenging, I get a lot of gratification out of crossing different kinds of identity boundaries. And, I’m experiencing success. I think this can happen for many of us as long as we’re open to it and willing to come out of our shell a little bit. Just take baby steps. If we do that, more people can experience the benefits. That’s what makes me optimistic: the small progress and gradual movements towards a more inclusive, diverse, and complex identity. I’m not just thinking of success as something narrowly defined, as in our academic lives. I’m thinking about genuinely embracing identities that are different from mine and being willing to deal with the messiness and challenges and setbacks and discomfort that this can bring. One has to be willing, but there also has to be a safe place for it. There also has to be a feeling that in general, people value this. These are what I see as the critical things.