A Reality Check on Diversity


Justice Bennett

How realistic is the Diversity Initiative when 90% of the student body reports hearing derogatory comments about racial backgrounds?  An expert from the University of Pennsylvania weighs in.

Illustration / Brandon Moore

Malvern wishes to increase its diversity from 7.5 percent to 20 percent by 2019. I wonder how many of our readers knew this, or gave it any serious thought since the initiative was announced in the fall.  As a student leader of the Diversity Club, I have been thinking about this a lot. Currently, we do not even have half the visible diversity of any of our peers in the Inter-Ac.  Even with 20 percent we would still be trailing the national average of independent schools at 30 percent.

The Board of Trustees has made a commitment to this plan.  In order to attract great students out of the limited amount of visibly diverse students in the area, a school needs to be accessible and welcoming to diverse candidates. Not only on paper, or in mission statements, but also in practice.

However, our student body is far from ready for a more diverse community, according to our recent student survey.

How are we doing with the accessible and welcoming part?  We certainly welcome each other.  In a survey sent out to the student body recently, 73 percent of students agree the Malvern environment is accepting of who they are.  We know the student community is 85 percent catholic and 92.5 percent white.  83 percent of the students who answered identified themselves as conservative or “far right,” whereas, only 1.5 percent students considered themselves “far left.” 60 percent of students live within a 11-30 minutes range from school.  We accept who we are, and we call it brotherhood.  But how accepting will we be of differences?

In that same survey, 93 percent of students reported hearing insensitive remarks towards gay, lesbians or bisexuals, and 45 percent of them reported hearing those remarks frequently. Eighty percent of students said they hear condescending comments about socio-economic class at school. As for visible diversity, 90 percent of students say they hear derogatory comments about persons of particular racial or ethnic backgrounds, and 38 percent of them say “very often” or “frequently.” These are all statistics from our own students on diversity!

Not only are we similar by race and visible diversity – too many of the student body believes, speaks, and acts in ways that demonstrate being not ready for a more diverse community. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work. According to outgoing president of our Diversity Club, Anthony Abron, “The student body is not ready or accepting of diversity by any stretch.”

Ms. Ali Michael of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race in Equity in Education offered some advice for our community.  According to Michael, the way to deal with 90% of the students hearing derogatory comments is to ask them “What does this say about our community?  Is this the community we want to create?”

“Most of the students think that is unacceptable but maybe they think they have to participate in it to fit in,” Michael theorizes.  “Also even though 90% of the students hear it, there may be only a small percentage actually saying it.”

Michael, who is Jewish, emailed that she sometimes feels “alienated by Quaker schools that are welcoming to other religions, but don’t honor their traditions. I imagine this could happen at a school that is Christian, but is trying to attract religious diversity.” She states an example of this is “having prayer in the classroom or at major school events that does not work to incorporate all the religious perspectives of the community or an open ended style/deity.”

“It’s important to learn to see Christian privilege if you are a Christian community working to attract people of other religions,” noted Michael.

She states education and training to help the faculty and student body be more racially and culturally proficient is the first step.  “The school will also be more attractive to people of color if it seems like people know a thing or two and it’s not a hostile atmosphere,” said Michael.

The Diversity Task force indicated that the Diversity Initiative will cost $10M. To make sure we do not spend even more money, we need to pick our battles, but in order.

According to Malvern’s mission statement for diversity on the website, the ‘foundational text’ for characterizing diversity at the school is the passage: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) Perhaps, in order to be truly welcoming,  we should start with the recognition that diverse or different does not mean ‘least’ or ‘less than.’

UPDATE: Matthew 25:40 was removed from the school’s statement for diversity on its website in June 2014.