Diversity and Cross Cultural Awareness


What is Diversity? 

There are few words in the English language that have more varied interpretations than diversity. What does diversity mean? Better yet—what does diversity mean to you? And what does it mean to your best friend, your teacher, your parents, your religious leader, or the person standing behind you in a grocery store?

For each of us, diversity has unique meaning. Below are a few of the many definitions offered by college students at a 2010 conference on the topic of diversity. Which of these definitions rings out to you as most accurate and thoughtful? Which definitions could use some embellishment or clarification, in your opinion?

Diversity is a group of people who are different in the same place.

Diversity to me is the ability for differences to coexist together, with some type of mutual understanding or acceptance present. Acceptance of different viewpoints is key.

Tolerance of thought, ideas, people with differing viewpoints, backgrounds, and life experiences.

Anything that sets one individual apart from another.

People with different opinions, backgrounds (degrees and social experience), religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientations, heritage, and life experience.


Having a multitude of people from different backgrounds and cultures together in the same environment working for the same goals.

Difference in students’ background, especially race and gender.

Differences in characteristics of humans.

Diversity is a satisfying mix of ideas, cultures, races, genders, economic statuses and other characteristics necessary for promoting growth and learning among a group.

Diversity is the immersion and comprehensive integration of various cultures, experiences, and people.

Heterogeneity brings about opportunities to share, learn and grow from the journeys of others. Without it, limitations arise and knowledge is gained in the absence of understanding.

Diversity is not tolerance for difference but inclusion of those who are not the majority. It should not be measured as a count or a fraction—that is somehow demeaning. Success at maintaining diversity would be when we no longer ask if we are diverse enough, because it has become the norm, not remarkable. [1]


Diversity means different things to different people, and it can be understood differently in different environments. In the context of your college experience, diversity generally refers to people around you who differ by race, culture, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, abilities, opinions, political views, and in other ways. When it comes to diversity on the college campus, we also think about how groups interact with one another, given their differences (even if they’re just perceived differences). How do diverse populations experience and explore their relationships?

“More and more organizations define diversity really broadly,” says Eric Peterson, who works on diversity issues for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Really, it’s any way any group of people can differ significantly from another group of people—appearance, sexual orientation, veteran status, your level in the organization. It has moved far beyond the legally protected categories that we’ve always looked at.”[2]

Surface Diversity and Deep Diversity

Surface diversity and deep diversity are categories of personal attributes (a feature or trait)—or differences in attributes—that people imagine exist between people or groups of people.

Surface-level diversity refers to differences you can generally observe in others, like ethnicity, race, gender, age, culture, language, disability, etc. You can quickly and easily observe these features in a person. And people often do just that, making subtle judgments at the same time, which can lead to bias or discrimination. For example, if a teacher believes that older students perform better than younger students, she may give slightly higher grades to the older students than the younger students. This bias is based on perception of the attribute of age, which is surface-level diversity.

Deep-level diversity, on the other hand, reflects differences that are less visible, like personality, attitude, beliefs, and values. These attributes are generally communicated verbally and nonverbally, so they aren’t easily noticeable or measurable. You may not detect deep-level diversity in a classmate, for example, until you get to know them, at which point you may find that you are either comfortable with these deeper character levels, or perhaps not. But once you gain this deeper level of awareness, you may focus less on surface diversity. For example: At the beginning of a term, a classmate belonging to a minority ethnic group, whose native language is not English (surface diversity), may be treated differently by fellow classmates in another ethnic group. But as the term gets under way, classmates begin discovering the person’s values and beliefs (deep-level diversity), giving everyone a fuller, deeper picture of that person. The surface-level attributes of language and perhaps skin color become more “transparent” (less noticeable) as comfort is gained with deep-level attributes. 

Harper College’s Cultural Center supports the needs of our diverse students and staff. This video provides an overview of the space and programs:

Positive Effects of Diversity Educational and Work Settings

Why does diversity matter in college? It matters because when you’re exposed to new ideas, viewpoints, customs, and perspectives—which invariably happens when you come in contact with diverse groups of people—you expand your frame of reference for understanding the world. Your thinking becomes more open and global. You become comfortable working and interacting with people of all types. You gain a new knowledge base as you learn from people who are different from yourself. You think more deeply and more creatively. You perceive in new ways, seeing issues and problems from new angles. You can absorb and consider a wider range of options, and your values may be enriched. In short, it contributes to your education.

Consider the following facts about racial and ethnic diversity in the United States:

  • “In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the nation’s population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Among this group, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population.”[3]
  • “Of the 16.3 million undergraduate students in fall 2016, about 9.1 million were White, 3.2 million were Hispanic, 2.2 million were Black, 1.1 million were Asian, 596,000 were of Two or more races, 129,000 were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 47,000 were Pacific Islander.” College enrollment has risen in recent years among most of these student groups.[4]
  • In 2020, about 37% of the American workforce was made up of people who didn’t identify as white.[5] By 2060, that number is projected to be about 54%.[6] American workplaces will be increasingly diverse!
The following video shares opinions from students about the value of diversity on campus. Can you think of examples in your own life where disagreement or a difference of opinion with someone else benefitted both you and the other person?

Next, we want to dig deeper into why diversity is important. The following talk from Katherine Phillips of Columbia University explores how diversity benefits the world and how we can learn to recognize differences instead of erasing them.

All in all, diversity brings richness to relationships on campus and off campus, and it further prepares college students to thrive and work in a multicultural world.

Brief History of Diversity in America

The United States is made up of a rich mixture of people of many colors, religions, abilities, etc. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and cultural influences from around the world have added to its strength. Historically, however, some groups have had to struggle to have their contributions acknowledged, be treated fairly, and be allowed full participation in the civic life of the country. Entire populations of people have been oppressed as a part of the nation’s history, something important for Americans to confront and acknowledge. 

Race and ethnicity have torn at the fabric of American society ever since the time of Christopher Columbus, when about 1 million Native Americans were thought to have populated the eventual United States. By 1900, their numbers had dwindled to about 240,000, as tens of thousands were killed by white settlers and U.S. troops and countless others died from disease contracted from people with European backgrounds. Scholars have said that this mass killing of Native Americans amounted to genocide.[7]

African Americans obviously also have a history of maltreatment that began during the colonial period, when Africans were forcibly transported from their homelands to be sold and abused as slaves in the Americas. During the 1830s, white mobs attacked African Americans in cities throughout the nation, including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. This mob violence led Abraham Lincoln to lament “the worse than savage mobs” and “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country”.[8] The mob violence stemmed from a “deep-seated racial prejudice…in which whites saw blacks as ‘something less than human’”[9] and continued well into the 20th century, when whites attacked African Americans in several cities, with at least seven anti-black riots occurring in 1919 alone that left dozens dead. Meanwhile, an era of Jim Crow racism in the South led to the lynchings of thousands of African Americans, segregation in all facets of life, and other kinds of abuses.[10]

Blacks were not the only targets of native-born white mobs back then.[11] As immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Asia flooded into the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they, too, were beaten, denied jobs, and otherwise mistreated. During the 1850s, mobs beat and sometimes killed Catholics in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans. During the 1870s, whites rioted against Chinese immigrants in cities in California and other states. Hundreds of Mexicans were attacked and/or lynched in California and Texas during this period.

Beyond race and ethnicity, many other groups of Americans have experienced discrimination. For instance, disabled people have had a long history of institutionalization. Many people with disabilities have been excluded from society and warehoused in asylums, hospitals, and “special” schools. Disabled people have also been prevented from having children and participating in parenting through involuntary sterilization; forced to terminate pregnancies; forced to undergo brutal medical treatments such as lobotomies, etc.These sorts of practices are often referred to as eugenics, or the goal of optimizing humans by weeding out those deemed to be weaker or lesser in some way. (Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other historically minoritized groups were also subjected to eugenics programs in the United States.) [12][13]

Until just a decade ago, individuals who engaged in consensual same-sex relations could be arrested in many states for violating so-called sodomy laws. The US Supreme Court, which had upheld such laws in 1986, finally outlawed them in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558, by a 6–3 vote. The majority opinion of the court declared that individuals have a constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to engage in consensual, private sexual activity.[14]

These are just some examples of the many types of discrimination, violence, and other injustices groups of Americans have experienced, and, most importantly, many groups continue to face systemic injustices today. Acknowledging the history and current situation is an important step toward addressing inequities going forward, and it allows us to work together to ensure the United States lives up to its ideals of freedom for all.

The Role of Equity and Inclusion

Equity plays a major part in achieving fairness in a diverse landscape. Equity gives everyone equal access to opportunity and success. For example, you may have seen interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing people in situations where a public official is announcing an impending weather emergency. Providing immediate translation into sign language means that there is no gap between what the public official is saying and when all people receive the information. Simultaneous sign language provides equity. Similarly, many students have learning differences that require accommodations in the classroom. For example, a student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be given more time to complete tests or writing assignments. The extra time granted considers that students with ADHD process information differently.

If a student with a learning differences is given more time than other students to complete a test, that’s a matter of equity. The student isn’t being given an advantage; the extra time gives them an equal chance at success.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) is a federal government policy that addresses equity in the workplace, housing, and public places. The ADA requires “reasonable accommodations” so that people with disabilities have equal access to the same services as people without disabilities. For example, wheelchair lifts on public transportation, automatic doors, entrance ramps, and elevators are examples of accommodations that eliminate barriers of participation for people with certain disabilities.

Without the above accommodations, those with a disability may justly feel like second-class citizens because their needs were not anticipated. Further, they might have to use their own resources to gain equal access to services although their tax dollars contribute to providing that same access and service to other citizens.

Equity levels the playing field so that everyone’s needs are anticipated, and everyone has an equal starting point. However, understanding equity is not enough.

When equity is properly considered, there is also inclusion. Inclusion means that there are a multiplicity of voices, skills, and interests represented in any given situation. Inclusion has played a major role in education, especially in terms of creating inclusion classrooms and inclusive curricula. In an inclusion classroom, students of different skill levels study together. For example, students with and without developmental disabilities study in the same classroom. Such an arrangement eliminates the stigma of the “special education classroom” where students were once segregated. In addition, in inclusion classrooms all students receive support when needed. Students benefit from seeing how others learn. In an inclusive curriculum, a course includes content and perspectives from underrepresented groups. For example, a college course in psychology might include consideration of different contexts such as immigration, incarceration, or unemployment in addition to addressing societal norms. Inclusion means that these voices of varied background and experience are integrated into discussions, research, and assignments rather than ignored.

Diversity through a Social Justice Lens

While equity and inclusion efforts attempt to give all people access to existing educational, career, and other opportunities, social justice goes farther and aims to dismantle the systems of oppression that created inequalities in the first place. Social justice accepts that the status quo is unfair to many groups of people and seeks to create more just systems that don’t simply reproduce the inequities.

Social justice isn’t the same as diversity, but it can be a way to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Here is an example:

Looking through a diversity lens would mean recognizing that students with disabilities exist in a class and that their perspective, along with the perspectives of all other students, adds value to the class’s experiences and learning.

Adding an equity/inclusion lens would mean recognizing that those students with disabilities may need additional accommodations and supports to help them be able to participate fully in the class and ensuring that those accommodations and supports are available. For instance, the Office of Access and Disability Services may ask a classmate to take notes for the student with disabilities so that they too can have access to notes for studying.

Using a social justice lens would mean recognizing that the reason students with disabilities need accommodations and supports is because the educational system is not designed with their needs in mind and working actively to change the unjust system. For instance, one or more students in a class may ask the professor to designate a rotating note taker. This effort could benefit students with disabilities because they wouldn’t need to ask for extra accommodations. It could also benefit all other students in the class, though, because more of their time could be spent on trying to learn the material rather than scrambling to write everything down. Furthermore, students could attempt to work with college administration to try and create policies and practices to implement these efforts across campus and even the entire education system.

Social justice movements are not new; people have always been fighting to create justice for themselves and others. A few examples of modern social justice movements include:

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Disability Rights
  • DREAMers Movement
  • Indigenous Rights
  • LGBTQIA+ Rights
  • #MeToo
  • Occupy Movement

Some social justice movements have a more centrally organized structure, while others are only loosely made up of many different groups and organizations who share common goals. All movements, however, are focused on identifying and addressing injustices through action, which might include protests, awareness campaigns, political action, civil disobedience, community support work, policy advocacy, and much more. Harper offers many Social Justice Studies courses and a Social Justice Studies Distinction if you’re interested in learning more about the role social justice plays in the world.


Cultural Awareness

Learning about each others’ differences will allow you to feel more comfortable when you interact with peers, staff, and faculty that are different than you. Enhancing your cultural awareness will enrich your educational experience, improve your communication, and when presented with opportunities to critically explore these differences, you can become more accepting of others.

The information in this section is designed to better prepare you for the intellectual and societal challenges facing an increasingly diverse society.

Definitions of Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is the social awareness that everyone is unique, that different cultures and backgrounds affect how people think and behave, and that this awareness allows people to behave appropriately and perform effectively in culturally diverse environments.

As a college student, you’re likely to find yourself in diverse classrooms, organizations, and – eventually – workplaces. It’s important to prepare yourself to be able to adapt to diverse environments. Cultural competency can be defined as the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities. In other words, cultural competency requires you to be aware of your own cultural practices, values, and experiences, and to be able to read, interpret, and respond to those of others. Such awareness will help you successfully navigate the cultural differences you will encounter in diverse environments. Cultural competency is critical to working and building relationships with people from different cultures.

The following video will help you understand more about what cultural competence means, and think about how cultural competence might show up in your own life. 

We don’t necessarily automatically understand differences among people and celebrate the value of those differences. Cultural competency is a skill that you can learn and improve upon over time and with practice. What actions can you take to build your cultural competency skills?

  • Acknowledge your own uniqueness, for you are diverse, too. Diversity doesn’t involve just other people. Consider that you may be just as different to other people as they are to you. Don’t think of the other person as being the one who is different, that you are somehow the “norm.” Your religion may seem just as odd to them as theirs does to you, and your clothing may seem just as strange looking to them as theirs is to you—until you accept there is no one “normal” or right way to be. Look at yourself in a mirror and consider why you look as you do. Why do you use the slang you do with your friends? Why did you have that type of food for breakfast? How is it that you prefer certain types of music? Read certain books? Talk about certain things? Much of this has to do with your cultural background—so it makes sense that someone from another cultural or ethnic background is different in some ways. But both of you are also individuals with your own tastes, preferences, ideas, and attitudes—making you unique. It’s only when you realize your own uniqueness that you can begin to understand and respect the uniqueness of others, too.
  • Consider your own (possibly unconscious) stereotypes. A stereotype is a fixed, simplistic view of what people in a certain group are like. It’s often the basis for prejudice and discrimination: behaving differently toward someone because you stereotype them in some way. Stereotypes are generally learned and emerge in the dominant culture’s attitudes toward those from outside that dominant group. A stereotype may be explicitly racist and destructive, and it may also be a simplistic generalization applied to any group of people, even if intended to be flattering rather than negative. As you have read this chapter so far, did you find yourself thinking about any group of people, based on any kind of difference, and perhaps thinking in terms of stereotypes? If you walked into a party and saw many different kinds of people standing about, would you naturally avoid some and move toward others? Remember, we learn stereotypes from our cultural background—so it’s not a terrible thing to admit you have inherited some stereotypes. Thinking about them is a first step in breaking out of these irrational thought patterns.
  • Don’t try to ignore differences among people. Some people try so hard to avoid stereotyping that they go to the other extreme and try to avoid seeing any differences at all among people. But as we’ve seen throughout this chapter, people are different in many ways, and we should accept that if we’re to experience the benefits of diversity.
  • Don’t apply any group generalizations to individuals. As an extension of not stereotyping any group, also don’t think of any individual person in terms of group characteristics. People are individuals first, members of a group second, and any given generalization simply may not apply to an individual. Be open-minded and treat everyone with respect as an individual with his or her own ideas, attitudes, and preferences.
  • Develop cultural sensitivity for communication. Realize that your words may not mean quite the same thing in different cultural contexts or to individuals from different backgrounds. This is particularly true of slang words, which you should generally avoid until you’re sure the other person will know what you mean. Never try to use slang or expressions you think are common in the cultural group of the person you’re speaking with. Similarly, since body language often varies among different cultures, avoid strong gestures and expressions until the responses of the other person signify they won’t misinterpret the messages sent by your body language.
  • Seek out opportunities to increase your cultural awareness. For instance, Harper hosts many events celebrating and exploring other cultures. Special events, cultural fairs and celebrations, hosted speakers, concerts, and other programs are held frequently held on Harper’s campus as well as in other community centers such as park districts, public libraries, local churches, etc. Harper’s Office of International Education hosts events and study abroad opportunities. Even books, movies, and music created by people from other cultures can be great ways to expand your understanding of others.
  • Take the initiative in social interactions. Many students naturally hang out with other students they’re most like—that may feel like part of human nature. Even when we’re open-minded and want to learn about others different from ourselves, it often seems easier and more comfortable to interact with others of the same age, cultural group, and so on. If we don’t make an effort to meet others, however, we miss a great opportunity to learn and broaden our horizons. Next time you’re looking around the classroom for someone to ask about a class you missed or to study together for a test, consider choosing someone different from you in some way. Making friends with others of different backgrounds is often one of the most fulfilling experiences of college students.
  • Work through conflicts as in any other interaction. Conflicts simply occur among people, whether of the same or different background. If you’re afraid of making a mistake when interacting with someone from a different background, you might avoid interaction altogether—and thus miss the benefits of diversity. If you’re sincere and respect the other person, there is less risk of a misunderstanding occurring. If a conflict does occur, work to resolve it as you would any other tension with another person, and be open to feedback from the other person if you inadvertently did something insensitive.

Developing your cultural competency will help you be more in tune with the cultural nuances and differences present in any situation. It’s also the first step in being able to appreciate the benefits diversity can bring to a situation.

Who am I?

The multiple roles we play in life—student, sibling, employee, partner, roommate, for example—are only a partial glimpse into our identity. Right now, you may think, “I really don’t know what I want to be,” meaning you don’t know what you want to do for a living, but have you ever tried to define yourself in terms of the sum of your parts?

Social roles are those identities we assume in relationship to others. Our social roles tend to shift based on where we are and who we are with. Considering your social roles as well as your nationality, ethnicity, race, friends, gender, sexuality, beliefs, abilities, geography, etc., who are you?

To better understand identity, consider how social psychologists describe it. Social psychologists, those who study how social interactions take place, often categorize identity into four types: personal identity, role identity, social identity, and collective identity.

Personal identity captures what distinguishes one person from another based-on life experiences. No two people, even identical twins, live the same life.

Role identity defines how we interact in certain situations. Our roles change from setting to setting, and so do our identities. At work you may be a supervisor, in the classroom you are a peer working collaboratively; at home, you may be the parent of a 10-year-old. In each setting, your personality may be the same, but how your coworkers, classmates, and family see you is different.

Social identity shapes our public lives by our awareness of how we relate to certain groups. For example, an individual might relate to or “identify with” Korean Americans, Chicagoans, Methodists, and Bulls fans. These identities influence our interactions with others. Upon meeting someone, for example, we look for connections as to how we are the same or different. Our awareness of who we are makes us behave a certain way in relation to others. If you identify as a hockey fan, you may feel an affinity for someone else who also loves the game.

Collective identity refers to how groups form around a common cause or belief. For example, individuals may bond over similar political ideologies or social movements. Their identity is as much a physical formation as a shared understanding of the issues they believe in. For example, many people consider themselves part of the collective energy surrounding the #metoo movement. Others may identify as fans of a specific type of entertainment such as Trekkies, fans of the Star Trek series.

What we do and believe today may not be the same tomorrow. Further, at any one moment, the identities we claim may seem at odds with each other. Shifting identities are a part of personal growth. While we’re figuring out who we truly are and what we believe, our sense of self and the image that others have of us may be unclear or ambiguous.

Many people are uncomfortable with identities that don’t fit squarely into one category. How do you respond when someone’s identity or social role is unclear? Such ambiguity may challenge your sense of certainty about the roles that we all play in relationship to one another. Racial, ethnic, and gender ambiguity can challenge some people’s sense of social order and social identity.

When we force others to choose only one category of identity (race, ethnicity, or gender, for example) to make ourselves feel comfortable, we do a disservice to the person who identifies with more than one group. For instance, people with multiracial ancestry are often told that they are too much of one and not enough of another. The actor Keanu Reeves has a complex background. He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a White English mother and a father with Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry. His childhood was spent in Hawaii, Australia, New York, and Toronto. Reeves considers himself Canadian and has publicly acknowledged influences from all aspects of his heritage. Would you feel comfortable telling Keanu Reeves how he must identify racially and ethnically?

There is a question many people ask when they meet someone whom they cannot clearly identify by checking a specific identity box. Inappropriate or not, you have probably heard people ask, “What are you?” Would it surprise you if someone like Keanu Reeves shrugged and answered, “I’m just me”?


One way to consider your own identity is with a Cultural Pie Chart. This activity involves identifying the most important aspects of your identity, considering how those identities add up to make the whole you. Thinking about your own Cultural Pie Chart can help you understand yourself better, and sharing your Pie Chart with others can help you better understand how everyone is complex and not neatly categorized into “just one thing.”

The following video is an example of someone explaining their own Cultural Pie Chart. As you watch, think about what your own Pie Chart might look like. How would yours be the same, and how would it be different, from the person in the video?

Avoid Making Assumptions

By now you should be aware of the many ways diversity can be both observable and less apparent. Based on surface clues, we may be able to approximate someone’s age, weight, and perhaps their geographical origin, but even with those observable characteristics, we can’t be sure about how individuals define themselves. If we rely too heavily on assumptions, we may be buying into stereotypes, or generalizations.

Stereotyping robs people of their individual identities. If we buy into stereotypes, we project a profile onto someone that probably isn’t true. Prejudging people without knowing them, better known as prejudice or bias, has consequences for both the person who is biased and the individual or group that’s been prejudged. In such a scenario, the intimacy of real human connections is lost. Individuals are objectified, meaning that they only serve as symbolic examples of who we assume they are instead of the complex individuals we know each person to be.

Stereotyping may be our way of avoiding others’ complexities. When we stereotype, we don’t have to remember distinguishing details about a person. We simply write their stories for ourselves and let those stories fulfill who we expect those individuals to be. For example, an elementary school teacher may recruit an Indian American sixth grader to the spelling bee team because many Indian American students have won national tournaments in the recent past. A real estate developer may hire a gay man as an interior designer because he has seen so many gay men performing this job on television programs. A coach may choose a White male to be a quarterback because traditionally, quarterbacks have been White men. In those scenarios, individuals of other backgrounds, with similar abilities, may have been overlooked because they don’t fit the stereotype of who others suspect them to be.

Being civil and inclusive doesn’t require a deep-seated knowledge of the backgrounds and perspectives of everyone you meet. That would be impossible. But avoiding assumptions and being considerate will build better relationships and provide a more effective learning experience. It takes openness and self-awareness, and sometimes it requires help or advice. However, learning to be sensitive—practicing assumption avoidance—is like a muscle you can strengthen.

Just as you have your own story, everyone around you has a story as well. In the following video, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her perspective on why we shouldn’t make assumptions and generalizations. As you watch, consider what “single stories” you may have heard about places and people. Identifying those incomplete or inaccurate stories is one step toward avoiding damaging assumptions.


Remember the response to the “What are you?” question for people whose racial or gender identity was ambiguous? “I’m just me” also serves those who are undecided about diversity issues or those who don’t fall into well-defined categories such as feminist, liberal, conservative, or religious. Ambiguity sometimes makes others feel uncomfortable. For example, if someone states she’s a Catholic feminist unsure about abortion rights, another student may wonder how to compare her own strong pro-life position to her classmate’s uncertainty. It would be much easier to know exactly which side her classmate is on. Some people straddle the fence on big issues, and that’s OK. You don’t have to fit neatly into one school of thought. Answer your detractors with “I’m just me,” or tell them if you genuinely don’t know enough about an issue or aren’t ready to take a strong position.

Your Future and Cultural Competency

Where will you be in five years? Will you own your own business? Will you be a stay-at-home parent? Will you be making your way up the corporate ladder of your dream job? Will you be pursuing an advanced degree? Maybe you’ll have settled into an entry-level job and be content to stay there for a while. Wherever life leads you in the future, you’ll need to be culturally competent. Your competency will be a valuable skill not only because of the increasing diversity and awareness in America, but also because we live in a world with increasing global connections.

The United States is not perfect in its practice of diversity and cultural competence, but through the work of individuals and groups, we can move in a direction that celebrates and embraces the diversity in all of us. Understanding diversity and being culturally competent will make for a better future for everyone.


To understand diversity and cross-cultural awareness it is important to define some terms related to this topic. We encourage you to read and reflect on the following terms as you continue thinking about diversity and your own identity:

Achievement Gaps

The difference in academic performance between groups of students is referred to as the “achievement gap” in education. The National Governors’ Association claims that race and class are factors in the achievement gap. There is still an achievement gap between minority and underprivileged students nationwide and their white counterparts; a gap which can be impacted by income. [2]

Civil Rights

Rights to personal liberty established by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and certain Congressional acts, especially as applied to an individual or a minority group. [5]

Critical Consciousness

Unchanged: The ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems. [7]

Cultural Deficit Theories
Scholars identified cultural deficit theories to argue that children of color were “victims of pathological lifestyles” that limited their ability to profit from education.[8]


The patterns of daily life learned consciously and unconsciously by a group of people. These patterns can be seen in language, governing practices, arts, customs, holiday celebrations, food, religion, dating rituals, and clothing, to name a few. [10]


Individual differences (e.g., personality, prior knowledge, and life experiences) and group/social differences (e.g., race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, and ability as well as cultural, political, religious, or other affiliations. [12]


Everyone having the same rights, opportunities, and resources. Equality stresses fairness and parity in having access to social goods and services. [16]


Everyone getting what they need in order to have access, opportunities, and a fair chance to succeed. It recognizes that the same for everyone (equality) doesn’t truly address needs and therefore, specific solutions and remedies, which may be different, are necessary. [17]

Equity could be defined as providing educational opportunities and support that meet the needs of the community, especially those who are historically underserved, marginalized, or disproportionately impacted. Equity and equitable education assume rigor and equitable outcomes for all groups. Equity is complex and experienced or demonstrated simultaneously on multiple levels: personally, interpersonally, organizationally or institutionally, and systemically.


An environment and commitment to respect, represent, and accept diverse social groups and identities; an environment where all people feel like they belong. (In K-12 learning environments, inclusion can sometimes also refer to the practice of integrating students with disabilities into the classroom setting). [22]


The process of moving an individual, group, or institution to the periphery or to permanent insignificance.[26]


Encouraging and modeling overtly welcoming interactions between students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, student achievement increases. [27]

Social Justice

Social justice could be defined as both a process and a goal. Social justice is a way of seeing and acting aimed at resisting unfairness and inequity while enhancing freedom and possibility for all. It focuses on how people, policies, practices, curricula, and institutions may be used to liberate rather than oppress others, particularly disproportionately impacted persons.

Cultural Appropriation

When people use specific elements of a culture (e.g., ideas, symbols, images, clothing) that misrepresent and/or disrespect the culture of that marginalized group of people. It usually happens when one group exploits the culture of another group, often with little understanding of the group’s history, experience, and traditions. [35]


The denial of justice and fair treatment by both individuals and institutions in many arenas, including employment, education, housing, banking, and political rights. Discrimination is an action that can follow prejudicial thinking. [37]


Prejudging or making a decision about a person or group of people without sufficient knowledge. Prejudicial thinking is frequently based on stereotypes. [50]


Prejudice and/or discrimination against people based on their real or perceived sex. Sexism is based on a belief (conscious or unconscious) that there is a natural order based on sex. [51]


A simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group. [52]

To learn more about additional terms, research, and resources related to equity and to learn about the experiences of others and share your stories, explore Harper’s Equity Literacy Project.



This chapter is an adaption of:

College Success Strategies, by Rosie-Carbajal-Romo, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Forward with FLEXibility, by McMaster University, used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 License.

Global Pathways: Cultural Competence Curriculum Module, by Monica G. Burke, Ric Keaster, Hideko Norman, and Nielson Pereira, used under a CC-BY 4.0 License.

Introduction to Sociology 2e (Chapter 10.1), by OpenStax CNX, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, used under a CC-BY 4.0 License.

Introduction to Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World, by University of Minnesota, used under a CC-NA-NC-SA 4.0 License.

Learning Framework: Effective Strategies for Student Success (Chapter 17: Diversity and Cultural Competency), by Heather Syrett and Laura Lucas, used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.

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