Tag Archives: diversity training

Rethinking Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom

by Karen Lee


On March 30, 2017, President Gregory L. Fenves released the University Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (UDIAP). Within it, he describes the crystallization of policies that his administration has already put into action to promote diversity and inclusion at The University of Texas, as well as the inclusion of new initiatives outlined in the plan.

In March, I had the opportunity to participate in one particular ongoing initiative designed to train teaching assistants on cultivating inclusive classrooms. This essay offers my thoughts of the Inclusive Classroom Seminar in the context of a broader university-wide effort to live up to professed ideals of equality and inclusion.

The tables were positioned in a roundabout fashion so that graduate student participants from all divisions of the university could face one another as we talked about why we had decided to attend the two-day seminar. The atmosphere was serious as aspiring engineers, educational psychologists, physicists, microbiologists, historians, and sociologists spoke honestly about goals such as better facilitating difficult discussions, acquiring empowering language to engage our students, reflecting upon our biases, and setting inclusive classroom tones. More often than not, our own experiences with discrimination and bigotry were woven into our motivations for being at this seminar. Some spoke about their ordeals with sexism, others about their experiences with micro-aggressions, while other students talked about the continuous questioning of their knowledge and ability.

An activity from a 2015 Inclusive Classrooms seminar. SOURCE: Division of Diversity and Engagement (DDCE)

The facilitators came equipped with carefully prepared and theoretically informative material and led a two-day seminar designed to educate and facilitate discussions on identities, classroom climate, micro-aggressions, and self-awareness. During the seminar, we also participated in scenario reflections where we considered potential solutions and responses to a variety of situations. Situations ranged from leading classes in the aftermath of a bomb threat to grouping students in gender binary categories. They provided important information on cultivating inclusivity in our roles as teaching assistants across a number of dimensions including racial, LGBTQ, disability, veteran, and gender diversity. They also placed particular emphasis on reflecting upon our own biases, prejudices, and assumptions because as they said, “we may not be experts on all our students, but we are able to be experts on ourselves.” Overall, it was clear to me that the seminar was thoughtfully designed to provide participants with knowledge of diversity and inclusivity concepts and to have us reflect on our role as teaching assistants in building safe spaces for our students.

Though the seminar was helpful, it also exemplified a nagging concern of mine, which is that in this seminar and in other situations, conversations about diversity and inclusivity are stunted. Sometimes the conversations feel like everyone is stepping on egg shells. Other times it sounds like an orchestra of impressive rhetoric with no productive meaning. Then there are times when outrage and cynicism seem to exist simply to exist. That is not to say that feelings of outrage and cynicism are unwarranted. However, we also cannot expect to have productive conversations about equality and social justice when outrage and cynicism dominate the room.

It’s clear that the university must continue to ask the hard questions about discrimination and intolerance, refrain from a politics of appeasement, and decidedly move from their masterful grasp of diversity and inclusivity rhetoric and theory into real, substantive institutional change. However, I also recognize that in our position as students and citizens, we must constantly reflect on what diversity and inclusion truly are, how change can be achieved, and continuously articulate these ideas with sharp precision, clarity, and determination. Otherwise, institutional leaders and their constituents have unproductive conversations and change becomes befuddled in a sticky web of outrage and appeasement. Reflections about change are futile without action, but action is futile without reflection. Our collaborative efforts must not merely skim the surfaces of the problems. They must be given the appropriate resources and depth in attention to materialize into bold steps that powerfully advance our ideals of equality and social justice.


Karen Lee is a rising second-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. Her research interests center around race and ethnicity, inequality, and political sociology. She is currently conducting an analysis on the effects of race on public perception of protest.



UT Austin Sociologists addressed fallout from two gender stories in the news this week.  Dr. Christine Williams, responded to a highly publicized and embarrassing training session offered by the City of Austin to prepare it’s employees to work effectively with the new city council, an unpredented majority of whom are women. In her blog post for Work in Progress (the ASA Organizations and Occupations blog) Dr. Williams discusses some of the issues diversity training faces.

Diversity training not only reinforces gender stereotypes, it teaches men and women that they have personality differences that suit them to different roles in the organizational hierarchy. In one case, a senior geophysicist explained that after taking a company sponsored Myers-Briggs test, she learned that supporting others is what she truly wants and needs to thrive and that she lacks the “personality” to be a leader. In her case, diversity training provided a justification for why men monopolize the top positions in the corporation, and why women with their “soft skills” are men’s ideal “supporters.”

Diversity training sessions are often an embarrassment, but they do not have to be that way. Imagine if Austin had hired consultants to teach staffers to spot and respond to gender stereotypes, and to help them to develop a deeper understanding of how stereotypes bolster privilege and exclusion. Instead of teaching men and women to accept the “facts” of gender differences, training sessions could focus on how to promote gender equality. Now that would be worth celebrating.

Caitlyn-Jenner-Picture-665x385Caitlyn Jenner has stepped into her role as champion for transgender people with the determination of an Olympic athlete, formerly known as Bruce Jenner.  The privilege she enjoys as a wealthy, beautiful woman with an established public forum in reality television gives her an unusual platform for advocacy.  While she has plenty of detractors, she enjoys a level of public interest and sympathy most transgender people never know. Her voice is being heard.

Thatcher Combs, a graduate Sociology student in our program was interviewed by Alberta Phillips for a recent article published in the Austin American Statesman. He makes a powerful statement about the nuances of gender conformity and privilege.

“Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” was received with a mix of applause and criticism. She has become a symbol of transgender rights, joining others such as Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black,” reaching the mainstream as never before. But critics charge that she would not be so celebrated were she not beautiful, rich and glamorous. It is, after all, difficult to emulate such a dramatically polished femininity without Jenner’s economic resources. The question remains whether Caitlyn’s coming out will further the interests of the transgender community and the LGBT movement overall.

The mainstream LGBT movement has focused most of its attention thus far on the acceptance of gays and lesbians. The success of the movement is due in large part to the politics of conformity and respectability. The choice to pursue equality through gay and lesbian rights by challenging barriers to military service and marriage rights reinforces the value of conventional lifestyles. Pursuing these avenues to acceptance made gays and lesbians seem “normal” in the eyes of many heterosexuals.

As the nation waits to hear the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage later this month, many wonder what will come next for the mainstream LGBT movement. With the fight for same-sex marriage drawing to a close, is it possible that we are now witnessing a newly burgeoning “mainstream” transgender movement?

Having captured global attention first as an Olympic champion and more recently as a member of the Jenner/Kardashian reality television family, Caitlyn may be the one person in the U.S. today who has the potential to normalize transgender people and gain acceptance for transgender rights.

But there are costs to making Jenner the movement’s new poster child. She conforms to feminine beauty standards — in facts she excels at them, just as she excelled at masculine standards when she lived as a man. But what she does not do is challenge society’s stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Where does this leave the majority of transgender people who may not be able to, or may not want to, fit normative standards of masculinity or femininity?

We must not forget, as we celebrate Jenner’s “coming out,” that financial success has allowed her to transition into the beautiful woman she is, yet there are transgender people who cannot physically transition for financial or medical reasons. In fact, many transgender people of lower socioeconomic status continue to pay a heavy price for attempting to live as who they are.

The fight for transgender rights and acceptance should also focus on the many children who are thrown out of their homes or who run away because their genders do not match the norms. We must address the fact that many transgender women, especially women of color, meet daily with verbal and physical assault, even murder.

Caitlyn Jenner has helped bring visibility to the transgender community. But broadening the fight for transgender rights beyond the world of the rich and famous will require recognizing that our current definitions of gender are simply too narrow, and our social policing of gender boundaries is inhumane.”

The struggle for our humanity requires challenges to norms which hinder the acceptance of our very real diversity. Gender norms are front and center in a very competitive field of necessary changes.