On NPR’s Morning Edition this morning, there was a two-minute interview with Chef Samin Nosrat, regarding favorite books and albums of the last decade. Both of her recommendations, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the album A Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles, explore the experience of race in the United States in interesting and affirming ways. As I listened to Nosrat, I was struck by these words:
“I don’t think I really understood that I was being left out until I saw myself in reflected in art and I hope that it just continues to happen, and more and more people feel included and seen.”
So often, the conversations around inclusion, social justice, and equity are argued in accusatory tones, yet Nosrat expresses it so simply here. She helps us see the positive impact of simply seeing oneself reflected in the culture.
I have written about this same topic as I experienced it, when C.J. Cregg appeared as the White House Press Secretary on The West Wing. Until that time, I understood some of the structural issues that disempowered me, but I did not realize that I was hungry for a story about who I thought I might be. It was not that I spent a lot of time complaining or even noticing my absence, but the presence was powerful. Like Nosrat, I embraced that experience as a kind of affirmation and a wish for everyone else.
However, wishing isn’t enough. We need to take seriously the important work of reflecting the rich and diverse experiences of all people in our curriculum. Here is the thing; this is probably the easiest task we face when we consider issues of equity. This does not require new funding streams or K-12 reform. The only cost is the time required to make these shifts.
On the course level, this is just a little summer homework as we review our syllabi to see that insure that we are broadly representative in the voices and images we include. If the course is coming from a single perspective, perhaps some work needs to be done. Since the topics we discuss in education are researched everywhere in the world, it is just not that hard to find diversity. Indeed, the passage from Americanah that Nosrat references suggests that it need not always be one-to-one representation (Irish for Irish-Americans, Jamaican for Jamaican-Americans). Including some voices about the experience of being different from the majority can make a difference.
At the level of the major, we might ask a broader question. Have we explored the things that drive economic decisions from the perspectives of the many cultures within and outside of the United States? Is this knowledge woven into our business curriculum in ways that help students see that general notions of rational decision-making are cultural constructs that shift as priorities shift? How might those differences reflect understandings of commitments to family, community, nation, and self? There is so much research in business, economics, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy that could inform rich discussions about culturally shaped decision-making. Reading about these differences might allow for better predictions, but also better understanding of priorities among our friends and relatives.
At the level of general education, have we infused considerations of our positions in society into most of our foundational requirements? It is not sufficient to check off the intercultural competency box (or whatever variation of this you have at your school) and call it a day. We must be weaving the impact of social and economic structures into most everything we do. This is not just for the humanities, it is also urgent in STEM. On Friday, I was listening to a story about training future physicians to diagnose things like skin cancer on patients who are not white. The current experience is that most of the images used in medical training are of light-skinned people. This leaves a big gap in the ability to see and easily recognize the signs of illness on darker skin. The simple answer, once again, is look at your materials and include greater diversity. Then we all have half a chance of a timely and accurate diagnosis.
In a world filled with shouting, I hope this suggestion is heard in calm and inclusive tones. I have not suggested excluding those who have had the benefit of attention prior to now. We should still consider the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare, Nikola Tesla, and Henry Ford. Their work has important insights and points of argument and they should not be ignored. However, I believe there is room for Ida Tarbell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ada Lovelace, and Sonya Sotomayor.
What I am trying to say, is there is lots of room for thoughtful inclusivity. There is time in our curriculum if we simply make that time. There are abundant examples to help us help our students see themselves in the thinking and the opportunities to which they are being introduced. If we do this, we can help “more and more people feel included and seen.”