“The world is diverse, but it is not equally diverse.”
de Sousa Santos (2012: 241)

The word diversity (in the singular form) has been quite popular in education during the last decade (Wood, 2003: 16). Diversity has even started to contribute to imagineer (or engineer/construct imaginaries about) the world and our schools. In the Nordic countries, for example, the word is used to refer implicitly to people of certain races and religions who do not look like the imagined majority (white Christians). It is thus a politically correct notion that straightjackets some people (Kureishi, 2005). According to Wood (2003: 2), in education, diversity refers to ‘facts’ (different skin colours, different religions, different languages) but also to hopes or wishes.

While the concept is reserved for certain strata of the population (migrants, ethnic and religious minorities), representatives of the ‘elite’ who travel from one place to another, are labeled ‘citizens of the world’, ‘multinationals’ or even ‘cosmopolitans’. How often do we hear someone label a refugee kid or a NAM as a ‘cosmopolitan’? Probably never. How come some labels are reserved for some people?

This questions the very notion of diversity: Who is diverse? What does it mean? Who is included or not in the label? Who has the power to be included or not in the label? Who has the right to reject the label for themselves? Who decides? What hides really behind the word diversity (ideologies)?

Wood (2003: 48) has already offered some answers to these questions. The word diversity is often used as:

  • “A euphemism for one or more unnamed categories of people.
  • A shorthand way to refer to cultural diversity in general.
  • Diversity is what is left over after specifying all the groups that have come to mind.
  • Cultural diversity can also be used as a compressed statement for the broader banality that the world is a big place, full of human variety.”

The concept of culture diversity is such a strong word that it is often made to stand for human beings. We talk about diversity in education, classroom diversity is good for children, the benefits of diversity in the classroom, etc. But who are we talking about? Depending on the context diversity might refer to and substitute the words immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Africans, etc. This diversity is often at the mercy of our institutions which decide about their (level of) foreignness/strangeness, their culture and their (heritage) language. For instance, a child whose parents were born in Taiwan but moved to the US, and who was himself born in America, maybe be labeled Confucian or Asian because of his origins. The idea of diversity can thus easily lead to children being boxed into solid and static categories. Wood argues that diversity then leads to “pinning down and labeling” (ibid.: 38).

I believe that by separating diversities and fighting different battles, such hierarchies can lead to frustration, ignorance, patronizing attitudes and disinterest in others. Diversity needs to become diversities. There are several reasons for making this apparently rebellious suggestion. We all need to fight to be recognized, to construct respect, to face some form of rejection and discrimination. It is of course much easier for some than others. But, in times like ours, even the powerful can find themselves in powerless positions because of some of their identities, changes in life circumstances and illnesses. Our duty is then to discuss these different forms of diversities together rather than separately. I believe this could help us thinkers, researchers, practitioners and decision-makers to sympathize and identify with these different (but yet potentially similar) diversities.

The way the very idea of diversity is approached today is thus highly problematic and biased. While the word diversity should refer to multiplicity it often means difference and ‘oneness’. While the other is often imprisoned in the straitjackets of a homogenized ‘diversity’, the majority can freely claim to be ‘normal’, ‘not visible’ and thus not needing special attention. I agree with Wood that “(such conception of) diversity is a form of systematic injustice and it makes us accomplices to injustices. To treat people as objects, as though they are the residuum of their race, class, gender and other such superficiality, and not individuals who define themselves through their ideas and creative acts – that is injustice” (2003: 4).

The first example is borrowed from Hanif Kureishi (2011: 3), a British writer, whose father was from Pakistan. He remembers this scene from his childhood: “When I was nine or ten a teacher purposefully placed some pictures of Indian peasants in mud huts in front of me and said to the class: ‘Hanif comes from India.’ I wondered: Did my uncles ride on camels? Surely not in their suits? Did my cousins, so like me in other ways, squat down in the sand like little Mowglis, half-naked and eating with their fingers?” My assumption is that the teacher did what she did to ‘infuse’ some diversity into the classroom by revealing Hanif’s ‘origins’. Kureishi explains that because of this essentializing episode, he rejected his Indian background and felt ashamed of not being like the majority, white.

The second example, again in the context of a classroom, is taken from a novel called The Life of a Banana (PP Wong, 2014). The banana here symbolises an Asian-looking girl who lives in the West (“white inside but yellow from the outside”). The main character, whose family is from Singapore, was born in the UK. In the following excerpt she talks about her first day at school and how her ‘diversity’ was put on the table by her teacher – to her surprise (ibid.: 28):

“-Good morning class
-Good morning Mrs Wilkins
-Class, before we begin, I would like to announce we have a newcomer all the way from China
-(I was born in hackney)
-Her name is…”

These examples show the danger of making assumptions about others based on what they look like, but also of ‘diversifying’ certain people while treating the rest of the class as if they were all transparent, ‘robot-like’ pupils. Interculturality should support us in rejecting or at least decreasing this limited and limiting approach to diversity. I argue that diversity touches us all and that educators should start treating everyone from a position of ‘diversities for all’ in order to put an end to these examples of concocted, facade diversity.

How do you understand the idea of diversity yourself? Do you often take your students’ ‘origins’ into account? What potential problems do you encounter when you do that? Have you found yourself stereotyping the idea of diversity?