C.J. Cregg changed my life. For those of you who don’t know, Cregg (played by Allison Janney) was the press secretary on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant political drama that ran from 1999-2006. I’ve always been a sucker for a good political drama, but the inclusion of a powerful woman, keeping up with and sometimes outwitting the men around her, was both inspirational and life affirming. I finally had that fictional role model I never knew I missed.
And there it was. I understood in an instant the importance of providing that affirmation of the value and strength of all groups in our media and in the education we provide. All of the arguments about literary canons, affirmative action, and political correctness disappeared. In this one case the answer is clear: We must deliberately review all that we offer to ensure that we are representing the cultures of all of our students and faculty in a truly life affirming way. Unlike all other attempts to build an inclusive society, we can take immediate and decisive action to achieve this end.
Here is the path as I see it. In the last U.S. Census the following gender and racial/ethnic distributions were reported:
- Women: 50.8 % of the US population
- Black or African American: 13.4% of the US population
- American Indian and Alaska Native: 1.3% of the US population
- Asian: 5.8% of the US population
- Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 0.2% of the US population
- Hispanic or Latino: 18.1% of the US population
- Two or more races: 2.7% of the US population
- White, not Hispanic or Latino: 60.7% of the US population
Let’s just try to achieve these proportions in everything we do.
Start at the course level. Can we achieve this proportion of voices in the readings we assign? Let’s examine the founders of our disciplines and then look a little further to see who else was there and try to include them. In most great discoveries, there are other players, usual mentioned in footnotes, that represent a great diversity of contributors to the field. Feature them. And let’s look at our other course materials (slides, videos, special guests, etc.) and deliberately revise them to reflect the proportions above.
Next, we should meet with our colleagues and look at the design of our majors. Are there gaps in the offerings that may have the cumulative effect of ignoring significant contributions to the discipline from the many cultures our country represents? It isn’t just literature, folks. There are scientists in India, economists in China, philosophers in Brazil. Let’s dig in and work together to fill that gap.
Look at the overall catalog of our offerings. If we imagine our students specifically looking for courses that might celebrate their varied cultural histories, would they easily find them? If we know things are in the syllabi, but not in course titles and descriptions, then we should fix that. These options must be visible. If courses don’t exist at all, we must find ways to add them.
Now look at the guests invited to campus. What does that tell us about who is celebrated? If it isn’t balanced, we should be more intentional about it. Perhaps we need a committee to review the schedule of performances, speakers, and events, to insure some balance. If we do, let’s make it so.
Finally, we must look at the images we chose to represent our universities. Do they reflect the proportions listed in the census? If not, let’s fix it.
I am sure some of you are now thinking that I’ve reduced complex arguments about curriculum to a simplistic quota system. You are correct, I have. Here’s why. The people we habitually select in our curricula and events may be tremendously talented, but they are still reflections of social inequities and access to power. We need a systematic plan to disrupt these habits. Establishing new habits generally takes a deliberate set of steps that can be easily followed and measured. This method provides those easily followed steps.
In every discipline there are the others who were in the labs, on the battlefields, creating art and music and theater, and negotiating peace treaties. They were the “hidden figures,” eclipsed by our bias toward those in power. These people are ready to be layered into our habitual go-to examples. Their routine inclusion will bring them to the forefront. Regularly including the many contributors to our stories and discoveries will help us avoid the tokenism of the single example (generally perceived as an exception), in favor of the routine recognition of the greatness that lives in all groups.
This is not a small job, but is entirely achievable. As I think back to that moment when I met C.J. Cregg, I recall my excitement, and shockingly to me, the tears I shed as I felt a hole in my list of role models suddenly fill. Hollywood has been moving forward in its efforts toward inclusion (slowly, but surely), but I fear education is not keeping up. (Check out John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons for a particularly insightful example of why this matters.) We get bogged down in debates over how to be inclusive, and they are important debates. But, some things are just obvious. Examples exist, so let’s use them. We can help fill the gaps in the narratives that our students are experiencing. They may not even know they are missing these examples, but I suspect their inclusion will be life-affirming to all of us.