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A question of comfort: Race, whiteness, and the creation of diverse, inclusive, and engaged learning environments

H. Elizabeth Braun, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Most colleges and universities in the United States today claim that "diversity" is an important institutional value, but it is not always clear what this term means or how "diversity" is actually experienced and understood by students at predominantly white institutions. This ethnographic study examines a predominantly white liberal arts woman's college in New England, applying data from participant observation, semi-structured interviews, autoethnography, and textual data. My research addresses three intersecting areas of inquiry: the experience of students attending a predominantly white institution in relation to issues of race and racial identity, institutional practices related to race, "diversity," and "culture," and examples of "white cultural practices" within the institution. The study found that institutional discourse promotes an ideology that marks "students of color" as "other" and the embodiment of "diversity" and creates a dynamic where white students are placed in the role of cultural tourists. Throughout the college community the invisibility and silences surrounding whiteness reinforced an ideology of white privilege. The analysis focuses on four central themes or narratives that circulate through a predominantly white campus. The first theme is the articulation of "diversity" and the "diverse community" specifically through the lens of the college admissions process. The next theme is "culture" as understood through an examination of institutional sites where "culture" is named and deployed on campus such as student cultural organizations. The third looks at the invisibility of whiteness and "white culture." The final theme considers what happens on a predominantly white campus when there is a high profile racial conflict, or "racial incident." The conclusion provides specific recommendations and interventions for the broader higher education community related to "re-framing" the "diverse community" and shifting towards the creation of "diverse, inclusive, and engaged learning environments." Possible interventions include integrating the academic mission of the college more closely with the goals of diversity and inclusion; providing more opportunities for white students to think critically about race and their own racial identity; and an increasing emphasis on the intersections and complexity of identity rather than a reliance on monolithic categories such as "students of color."

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Braun, H. Elizabeth, "A question of comfort: Race, whiteness, and the creation of diverse, inclusive, and engaged learning environments" (2011). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3461987.