How Commercializing Diversity Promotes Racism

by Dr. Arthur Scarritt

Group of diverse students
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Universities raising money by advertising diversity actually increase racism among white students. Universities across the US, like mine, make official statements that they are “actively committed to diversity and inclusivity, a stance in alignment with our Statement of Shared Values.” Such proclamations are mostly aspirational, saying the university would certainly like more diversity and is not going to take active measures to stop it.

At the same time, universities use diversity as advertising to attract students, with web pages, glossy printed materials, and colorful posters disproportionately featuring people of color. But using diversity as advertising makes aspirational statements non-aspirational like assessments of existing conditions. As with other forms of advertising, universities are trying to attract students based on what the university supposedly is: “Come to us to get this.” Both white and BIPOC students take the university at its word — that it actively supports diversity.

Most BIPOC students feel deceived when they find this is not true. We discovered this as part of a larger project for which we have been conducting open-ended interviews with students about their takes on higher education, including race and diversity. Most white students, however, reacted very differently from their BIPOC peers. And this is what makes advertising so problematic in higher education. Students must trust that universities have their best interests at heart. But advertising is “conscious and intelligent manipulation,” as Edward Bernays famously put it, convincing through using exaggerated, enticing, and even false representations.

Put in the context of diversity, we found that white students trusted the university’s uncritical advertising of diversity — that diversity already flourished at the university. Like other scholars, we found students seeing diversity as uncritically good: “Diversity is wonderful,” explained one typical white student. More to the point, since the university said diversity existed across campus, white students read diversity into almost every aspect of college life. As one young woman explained diversity to us:

I know a lot of people, more so with girls, flock to the education building a little bit, some of them even more to [a different building] because it has food and we’re girls, most of us are hungry…. I know the library is very diverse in that way, you can tell who the rowdier groups are because they stay on the first or second floor and more of us study-oriented or shy, lonely people, or if you just study alone they go up to the third or fourth floor. But you see just who cares more about academics or if you are a group you stay on the first floor.

Herein anything variable on campus becomes diversity, including buildings or floors on buildings. Another student gives even broader examples:

…different everything, there is a lot of different types of candies, my backpack is diverse, there are a lot of different materials and things in it. It also, it’s not, I don’t think I have ever seen someone with the same backpack as me.

As another student summed it up, diversity is “the entire world! All planet Earth.” That is, everything is part of diversity, and nothing is not a part of diversity. The concept becomes a meaningless collection of trivial differences. With the backpack example, diversity is both the different elements that make up a product — embodying diversity in and of itself and also how these differences add up to distinction even though almost everyone has a backpack. Diversity becomes an unavoidable, constantly changing aspect of everyday life. Everyone experiences it because everyone does different things at different times. It is everywhere and means almost nothing. And the university indirectly supports this perspective, by explaining that “Diversity is the variety of intersecting identities that make individuals unique”– everyone is diverse because everything contributes to diversity.

What happens to race under such conditions? Rationally, since white students do not see diversity missing, they do not regard its lack as a problem. It makes no sense to spend extra university efforts on increasing diversity since diversity already proliferates across campus. So the issue of racial inequality raises white students’ ire. Says one among many students about hypothetical scholarships for people of color:

I don’t think that that’s fair. I think that’s almost reverse what we’re trying to do. You know, we’re trying to create equality and equal diversity, but you’re getting the minority more than me.

Herein we see a phenomenon in which the classic colorblind racism of believing everyone has equality of opportunity gives way to more overtly racist understandings in which whites believe themselves victimized. Since race is subsumed as just one kind of diversity, just another inconsequential difference, the centering of race in calls for social justice translates to white students as fundamentally unfair. To these white students, people of color focus on one difference among many, and unjustly demand resources because of it. Said another student, “I think affirmative action is horrible.” Affirmative action to them is an unfair rigging of an otherwise equal contest. And since people of color engage in racial politics in order to game the system, whites have full license to do so too. All told, falsely advertising diversity ends up supporting racism.

Some incorrectly say the need to raise funds and the desire to support real diversity puts universities in a bind. Since universities have to raise so much more money now, partly through advertising, what can they do regarding diversity? If they don’t make aspirational statements they come across as racist. If they only show white students in their glossy brochures, it looks like they embrace whiteness. If they show BIPOC students, they are deceptive.

First, we must recognize that skyrocketing tuition is the fundamental problem making all matters worse and cannot be set aside in any discussion. Raising tuition is racist: it disproportionately disadvantages people of color, both immediately and in the long term. Secondly, though contrived advertising is the most effective form of advertising, it does not have to be devoid of content. Right now, advertising aspirational diversity statements provides cover for universities. It is just an ad, right alongside other empty but catchy slogans. Instead, the university could make actual, substantive changes and advertise these. The university could critically evaluate its diverse landscape and therein implement meaningful policies and programs to confront these issues. Advertising could help turn aspirational statements into reality.

There are many good ideas and initiatives out there, such as incorporating anti-racism into the curriculum, mission, and strategic goals; establishing anti-racism centers; and setting up real mentoring programs. But the university is also in charge of its budget — already full of drastic inequalities — which could be used to help remedy racial inequality if this truly were a priority. For instance, engineering courses can cost fourteen times as much as social science classes. Or to put it another way, one student’s entire bachelor’s degree in psychology can cost the university the same as one student taking just three classes in engineering. (And engineering is heavily male-dominated while females predominate in the social sciences). Since the university is clearly okay in using its resources to fund its engineering priorities, a much less dramatic reprioritizing of the budget to fight racism is not inconceivable. Departments could be reimbursed at a higher level for teaching BIPOC and first-generation students. They could be rewarded for making their curricula and programs better serve the most put upon students, and redress the inequalities and bigotries that increasingly plague campuses.

Currently, bold right-wing attacks openly employ race to drive their larger anti-education, increasingly totalitarian project. Instead of wasting money on branding, universities could use advertising to take a stand against these corrosive forces. Schools could show what a tremendous public good higher education is. And advertising anti-racism efforts could help universities force their opponents to out themselves as anti-anti-racist — as racist.

Arthur Scarritt is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Boise State University. He studies how people challenge and reproduce the multiple forms of inequality that make up their daily lives. He earned his bachelor’s at The Evergreen State College and his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs an intensive undergraduate research training program called the Intermountain Social Research Lab (IMSRL). The lab investigates how the privatization of public higher education intersects with issues such as race, class, gender, sexuality, diversity, STEM, and the culture wars. IMSRL employs rigorous critiquing to take students through all parts of a research project, including topic selection, proposal, interview instrument, interviewing, data processing, analysis, write-up, and presentation. Many of his students have gone on to use sociology to challenge the status quo through attending graduate programs and working with the community and public organizations.