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A Question of Comfort

Race, Whiteness, and the Creation of Diverse, Inclusive and Engaged Learning Environments

Presented by Dean Liz Braun to the faculty of Swarthmore College, Nov. 2012

This talk provides an overview of some of the issues I have been exploring in my research on race, whiteness, and diversity within the context of higher education since 2003 and specifically the results of my fieldwork during the 2009-2010 academic year at one predominantly white private liberal arts college in New England that I'll refer to by the pseudonym of Dexter College. For the purposes of this talk I will focus on three significant themes from my research: discourses surrounding "diversity", the process of racial categorization, and the invisibility of whiteness.  While my research did not take place at Swarthmore, I'm hoping we'll have some time at the end to think together about resonances or implications for Swarthmore.

The title of my talk is: "A Question of Comfort: Race, Whiteness, and the Creation of Diverse, Inclusive, and Engaged Learning Environments." The title highlights several key aspects of my research.

First of all I want to talk with you about the theme of "comfort."  The idea that the college campus should be a "comfortable place" was one that came up over and over again during my fieldwork.   Many students described selecting the college for its sense of being a close-knit community and many also talked about specifically selecting the college because it was a "diverse" community.

All of these comments led me to consider, within a predominantly white institutional context, what does it mean to be "comfortable?"  Why is being comfortable a desirable state of being? Who gets to be comfortable within this environment?  And what are the costs of comfort specifically related to creating a diverse, inclusive, and engaged learning environment?  How does the community respond when their sense of "comfort" is disrupted? 

I would argue that in the context of my study that this notion of comfort became discursively linked to an ideology that a "diverse community" was and should be a space where race relations are always harmonious and race and racism are no longer an issue.  The ideal of this imagined "diverse community" also included an implicit silence around whiteness and white privilege.

Further I would argue that these implied understandings of the "diverse community" resulted in limitations on cultivating a diverse and inclusive learning environment because it often led to curtailing or shutting down difficult dialogues and conflicts that are a necessary and critical part of developing a diverse and inclusive community.  So part of what I would like to offer this afternoon is an argument in favor of discomfort and the productivity that results when the community engages with discomfort.

My title also foregrounds that race and whiteness were my two primary points of investigation.  In my research I wanted to understand the role of race and whiteness and the way that it contributed to the formation of the culture of my particular field site.  I was particularly interested in where, when, and how race and whiteness are made visible within the institution and by extension where it was invisible or hidden. 

I also specifically wanted to name "whiteness" alongside of "race" because one of my key findings was that breaking the silence around "whiteness" and making whiteness visible is a crucial aspect for re-framing understandings of "diversity" within higher education.

Finally the last part of my title "the creation of diverse, inclusive, and engaged learning environments" signals that one of the goals of my study was to propose re-framings, alternatives, and promising practices that would help other educators think in some new directions about how to continue to move towards the goal of creating learning environments that foreground racial equality and social justice.