Unit 5: Critical Thinking & Cultural Competency

Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Dave Dillon

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”

– Malcolm Forbes

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 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 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 in college, 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]

The following videos explore aspects of diversity. They highlight the passion and excitement about diversity and the many ways in which diverse groups can support one another.  Diversity and difference exposes ourselves to new ways of thinking, challenges our assumptions, and be more open to change.

Video: Color blind or color brave? Mellody Hobson TED Talk

Video: When To Take a Stand and When To Let it Go, Ash Beckham TED Talk

Video: How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them, Vernã Myers TED Talk

Cultural diversity is found everywhere in college, and it should be respected, appreciated, and celebrated. To be successful as a college student, it is critical that you understand and can describe your own diverse background. Being self-aware allows you to identify what makes you who you are while recognizing the differences that exist between you, other students, your professors, and all the members of a campus community. This section will discuss the factors that make up a person’s culture and how one can effectively communicate and work with people who may be different. You will also learn about aspects of a college culture in order to successfully navigate this new world.
Successful students understand their strengths as students and constantly seek and use behaviors to improve their learning skills. A large part of college success is developing strong study habits. This unit also focuses on study skills and strategies to help you maximize your reading, note-taking, test-taking and time management skills.

Surface Diversity and Deep Diversity

Surface diversity and deep diversity are categories of personal attributes—or differences in attributes—that people perceive to 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 are not easily noticeable or measurable. You may not detect deep-level diversity in a classmate, for example, until you get to know him or her, 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), which they find they are comfortable with. The surface-level attributes of language and perhaps skin color become more “transparent” (less noticeable) as comfort is gained with deep-level attributes.



The word ‘race’ has largely been discredited in academic and policy discussions. You will notice that in this course, as elsewhere in the course, we have adopted the now common practice of putting the term ‘race’ in inverted commas, or ‘scare quotes’ as they are sometimes tellingly known. This is to indicate that, in current thinking, the idea of there being distinct ‘races’ and that human beings can be divided up on ‘racial’ grounds has been discredited. Racial thinking was at its height in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was associated with the ideologies of empire and colonialism. Ideas about distinct racial groups with distinct characteristics were developed to support the notion that some ‘races’ (those of white, European origin) were innately superior to others (usually ‘non-white races’ of African or Asian origin).

Many writers in this field argue that ‘race’ is socially constructed, as part of a process in which individuals are assigned to particular ‘racial’ categories (Banton, 1977; UNESCO, 1980; Miles, 1982, 1989). Certain physical characteristics, such as skin color, become markers of social difference, as part of a process of ‘racialization’ in which the concept of ‘race’ is given specific social meaning. People assigned to a particular ‘racialised’ group are perceived to have specific characteristics: for example, black people may be deemed to be better at some sports than white people, but also not as intelligent. In fact a great deal of early scientific research on ‘race’ focused on trying to determine intelligence by examining the size of the brain in different ‘racialized’ groups (Huxley and Haddon, 1935; Jensen, 1969; Eysenck, 1971; Banton, 1977; Barkan, 1992). This research was inconclusive and no ‘racial’ differences were found. However, there are some genetic differences between groups of people which seem to have a geographical origin. For example, some inherited disorders are more prevalent in certain areas of the world and in communities that have migrated (Weatherall, 2001). Thalassaemia is more prevalent in Greek-Cypriot communities, whereas cystic fibrosis is more prevalent in North European communities (Ward, 2001). Some writers (for example Jensen, 1969; Eysenck, 1971) argue that this demonstrates the reality of ‘racial differences’. However, others have argued that such ‘differences’ are largely insignificant, and that in fact there are more genetic differences within ‘racial groups’ than between them (Woodward, 1997).

More significant than any minor genetic differences is the way in which supposed ‘racial’ differences have been used to explain people’s behavior and to place them in a hierarchy in society. To quote social policy writer Esther Saraga:
“From a social constructionist perspective what is important is the ways in which these terms link together to produce a social relation, which organizes how people are placed in society. From this viewpoint, to construct groups of people into ‘races’ involves a threefold process:

  1. Human populations are divided into discrete categories on the basis of variations in physical features.
  2. Meaning is ascribed to this physical variation and it is then said to be possible to know the potentialities, behaviors, needs and abilities of a person on the basis of their ‘racial’ belonging.
  3. This social process of categorization and classification is then said to be a product of nature – that is, racial division is said to be natural.
    (Saraga, 1998, pp. 99–100)”


By contrast with ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ is still widely used to describe differences between groups, although like ‘race’ it is a contested term. The terms ‘ethnic’ and ‘ethnicity’ are commonly used to denote groups of people who share common national or geographical origins, values and beliefs, and customs and traditions. Unlike the notion of ‘race’, ethnicity does not imply innate biological differences but rather similarities derived from belonging to, or being brought up as part of, a specific group (Nazroo, 1997). As with all terms in this area, there is a need to be wary about how ‘ethnicity’ is used. Sometimes the word ‘ethnic’ is misused to denote ‘otherness’ from the (white British) norm, as in the terms ‘ethnic dress’, ‘ethnic food’ and ‘ethnic music’. This assumes that white people do not have an ethnicity, and constructs ethnicity as pertaining only to minority groups. Often the category ‘white’ is used in the UK context to obscure differences between people from a wide range of ‘ethnic’ groups, such as Irish or Italian. Moreover, the idea of ‘ethnicity’ assumes that everyone can be categorized as belonging to one, fixed grouping, which can then be used to explain their behavior and needs. But some people are of dual or mixed heritage and do not fit neatly into the categories offered, thus calling into question the whole process. How should you define your ethnicity if one of your parents is African–Caribbean and the other white, for example, or if (like the British former Labour MP Oona King) you are both black and Jewish?

Reflect on your own identity. How easy or difficult is it to define your ethnicity? How important is your ethnicity to you? The next activity is an opportunity to focus specifically on your ethnic identity.


If differences on the basis of gender, ethnicity and disability are socially constructed, how should people view their identities, for example as men, or disabled people, or people of African–Caribbean origin?

Where do such identities come from, and how useful are they in explaining people’s experience of communication?
Foucault’s ideas about changing discourses, and the ways in which they construct people’s view of the world, can be applied to issues of ethnicity and gender. The dynamic and fluid nature of ethnic and gender categories is apparent even in the language and terminology used to describe people. Think, for example, about the different labels that have been used to describe black people of Caribbean heritage living in the UK over the past 50 years, and about the different meanings attached to those labels. Terms such as ‘Negro’, ‘colored’, ‘West Indian’, ‘black’ and ‘African–Caribbean’ have different connotations.

Firstly, each term has included and excluded different sets of people. ‘West Indian’ implicitly excluded people from Caribbean countries that had not been British colonies, for example, while ‘colored’ and ‘black’ were also applied at various times to people of African and Asian origin. Some terms referred to skin color, others to national or geographical origin. Some terms had strongly negative connotations, or their connotations changed over time. Moreover, the terms had different meanings for different people. Avtar Brah describes how the term ‘black’, which was originally pejorative, was taken up and used as a source of pride and as a political identity. It was also assumed for political reasons for a time by people of Asian, Turkish and Arab origin resident in the UK (Brah, 1992). More recently, and as a result of complex political and cultural processes, religion has played a greater part in the ways in which both society classifies people and people identify themselves. So in some contexts the term ‘Muslim’ now assumes greater importance than other ‘ethnic’ classifications, such as Asian, Arab or North African, with which it intersects.

These examples point to the contextual nature of identities. Another example of this is how different identities become important for people in different settings, as you will see when issues of ethnicity are explored later. Stuart Hall, a leading writer on issues of culture and identity, suggests that the word ‘identifications’ is preferable to the term ‘identities’, reflecting a view that identity is a process rather than something fixed and unchanging (Hall, 2000). Furthermore, assuming an identity takes place in a social context. As Hall makes clear, the identities that people take on always come with a history and are to some extent ‘given’ by society, although people may attribute different meanings to them and the meanings that they attribute to aspects of their identity (for example, ethnicity) may be different from the meaning it has for others (for example, being black may be a source of pride for you, but the basis of someone else’s negative stereotyping).


Key Takeaways

Social identities, whether based on ethnicity, gender, disability or other factors, should be seen as: plural, dynamic, contextual, negotiated, and produced in social and interactional contexts.



Identities are plural

● Every person has a range of identities, according to how they see themselves (and how others see them) in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and so on. This means that seeing an individual in terms of one aspect of their identity – as a black person, for example, rather than as (say) a black working-class woman who is also a social worker, a mother and a school governor – is inevitably reductive and misleading.

Identities are dynamic

● The identities people assume, and the relative importance they attach to them, change over time because of both personal change in their lives and change in the external world (for example, as a result of changing ideas about disability). Consequently, identity should not be seen as something ‘fixed’ within people.
Identities have different and changing meanings
● Aspects of identity may have different meanings at different times in people’s lives,

Identities are contextual and interactional

● Different identities assume greater or less importance, and play different roles, in different contexts and settings, and in interactions with different people. Different aspects of people’s identity may come to the fore in the workplace and in the home, for example, while people might emphasize different aspects of themselves to different people (and different people may see different identities when they meet them).

Identities are negotiated

● In constructing their identities, people can only draw on terms that are available in society at that time, which have meanings and associations attached. However, people may attribute different meanings and importance to those labels. This means people always negotiate their identities, in the context of the different meanings attached to them.
Taking this view of identity, as a social process that people engage in, rather than as a fixed essence inside them, is not to deny that particular identities are extremely important for certain groups and individuals. Being a Sikh, or a woman, or gay, may feel like the most important and ‘deepest’ part of you. However, a more dynamic and social model of identity is useful because it makes it difficult to reduce people to any one aspect of their identity, or to use social identity as a way of explaining every aspect of their behavior and needs, including their communication needs and behavior.


These first few sections have emphasized the point that differences are always produced in a social context, and that a key part of that context is power relationships. As pointed out earlier, a key element of Foucault’s social constructionist approach is that the way in which people are categorized in society (for example, by gender, ethnicity or age) involves an exercise of power that reflects the ideas and interests of dominant groups. One of the key arguments against essentialist views of difference is that they reflect, and at the same time help to perpetuate, inequalities of power and status.

We have already noted that the ways in which the terms used to describe people from certain ethnic, geographical or national backgrounds have changed significantly over time. In addition in the British context, the labels attached to people seen as ‘minorities’ have always been defined by the white majority that is by those with power. Labelling a group of people as ‘different’ in some way can itself be seen as an exercise of power, a way of putting people ‘in their place’ and fixing them there. Defining an individual primarily in terms of their apparent ethnic identity – for example as black, or African– Caribbean, or Asian – is a way of defining them as ‘different’ from a supposed white ‘norm’, and of playing down any similarities with others. The same can be said of attaching labels to people on the basis of a supposed disability, or sexual preference, or age.

The construction of people in terms of their supposed ‘differences’ from an imagined ‘norm’ or ‘majority’ tends to involve making sweeping generalizations about people on the basis of categories such as their ethnicity or gender. Individual differences, as well as similarities across groups, are lost as people are seen primarily as disabled, or ‘elderly’, or gay, for example. Decisions about individual needs, such as those relating to health and social care services, are then based on widely shared assumptions about people belonging to that group.

Often, these generalizations about groups – or stereotypes – are negative, since they reflect the differential power between those in the ‘majority’ and those categorized as ‘minorities’ or ‘different’. So, for example, women may be defined as less rational than men, or black people as less intelligent than white people: in these instances, men and white people respectively are characterized as the ‘norm’. These negative stereotypes both reflect existing inequalities – patterns of sexism and racism in society – and at the same time help to perpetuate them, for example by denying women and black people access to jobs that require a ‘cool head’ or complex intellectual skills. In other words, stereotyping people as ‘different’ can lead to discrimination.

Individual examples of prejudice and discrimination should not be seen as isolated or free-floating. Within organizations, stereotypes and prejudice are often dismissed as the attitudes of a small minority, and instances of discrimination as ‘isolated incidents’. However, a social model of difference would view them as reflecting wider institutional patterns and structures. Stereotypical views held by individuals do not materialize out of thin air. They often reflect deeply rooted social attitudes, which are themselves grounded in processes of oppression and exclusion going back hundreds of years. For example, stereotypes about African, Caribbean and Asian people can be seen as deriving ultimately from Britain’s long involvement in slavery and colonial exploitation (Fryer, 1984). Similarly, feminists argue that negative images of women have their origins in patriarchal structures and practices going back millennia (Abbott, 2000).

Processes of racism and sexism play a part in producing and perpetuating supposed ‘differences’ between people based on their ethnicity and gender. These processes of prejudice and discrimination can lead directly to people’s diverse needs not being met appropriately. Adopting this approach does not mean denying the existence of difference, but acknowledging that responding to difference also means challenging and changing practices and structures that exclude and disadvantage people on the basis of supposed ‘differences’ from the norm.

Key Takeaways

 1. Attributing fixed ‘differences’ to particular groups of people can be seen as part of a process that reflects and reproduces inequalities of power.
 2. Stereotypes of people based on their social identities tend to be negative and to define them in relation to their difference from an imaginary ‘norm’.
 3. Stereotypes can lead to prejudice and discrimination, which themselves reflect and perpetuate wider processes of oppression, such as sexism and racism.


Positive Effects of Diversity in an Educational Setting

Why does diversity matter in college? It matters because when you are 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 nationalities. You gain a new knowledge base as you learn from people who are different from yourself. You think “harder” 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 diversity in the United States:

  • More than half of all U.S. babies today are people of color, and by 2050 the U.S. will have no clear racial or ethnic majority. As communities of color are tomorrow’s leaders, college campuses play a major role in helping prepare these leaders.
  • But in 2019, while 56 percent of white Americans older than 25 years of age and 78% of Asian Americans had an Associate’s degree or higher, only 40 percent of African Americans and 31 percent of Hispanics had an Associate’s degree or higher. For bachelor’s degrees, the numbers are similar: 45% of white Americans over the age of 25 and 71% of Asian Americans had a Bachelor’s degree, while 29% of African Americans and 20% of Hispanics had a degree. More must be done to adequately educate the population and help prepare students to enter the workforce.
  • Today, people of color make up about 36 percent of the workforce (roughly one in three workers). But by 2050, half the workforce (one in two workers) will be a person of color. Again, college campuses can help navigate these changes.

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. Diversity is fast becoming America’s middle name.

Activity: Cultural Sensitivity and Inclusivity in Practice


  • Identify ways in which you can make diversity more personal.


This activity will help you examine ways in which you can develop your awareness of and commitment to diversity in everyday life. Answer the following questions to the best of your ability:

  • What are my personal and intellectual goals in college?
  • What kind of community will help me expand most fully, with diversity as a factor in my expansion?
  • What are my comfort zones, and how might I expand them to connect more diversely?
  • Do I want to be challenged by new viewpoints, or will I feel more comfortable connecting with people who are like me?
  • What are my biggest questions about diversity?
  • Write several paragraphs reflecting on the questions above.
  • Submit this assignment to the assignment link in Module 6.

Consider the following strategies to help you answer the questions:

  • Examine social media. Can you get involved with online or local organizations that promote and expand diversity?
  • Review your college’s curriculum. In what ways does it reflect diversity? Does it have courses on historically unrepresented peoples, e.g., cultural and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies?
  • Read your college’s mission statement. Read the mission statement of other colleges. How do they match up with your values and beliefs? How do they align with the value of diversity?
  • Inquire with friends, faculty, colleagues, family. Be open about diversity. What does it mean to others? What positive effects has it had on them? Ask people about diversity.
  • Research can help. You might consult college literature, community websites or Facebook pages, resource centers, etc.

Accessibility and Diversity on Campus

The idea of “accessibility” is an important force of change on college campuses today. Accessibility is about making education accessible to all, and it’s particularly focused on providing educational support to a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. According to the American with Disabilities Act, you can be considered disabled if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, learning, and others.
  • You have a history of such impairment.
  • Others perceive that you have such impairment.

If you meet one of these criteria, you have special legal rights to certain accommodations on your campus. These accommodations may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Academic accommodations, like alternate format for print materials, classroom captioning, arranging for priority registration, reducing a course load, substituting one course for another, providing note takers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, a TTY in your dorm room, and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.
  • Exam accommodations, like extended time on exams
  • Financial support and assistance
  • Priority access to housing
  • Transportation and access, like Wheelchair-accessible community shuttles

Assistive technologies and Web-accessibility accommodations are critical in today’s technology-driven economy and society. The following are some examples of assistive technologies:

  • Software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil, Zoom Text, CCTV Magnifier, Inspiration Software
  • Computer input devices, like keyboards, electronic pointing devices, sip-and-puff systems, wands and sticks, joysticks, trackballs, and touch screens
  • Other Web-accessibility aids, like screen readers, screen enlargers, and screen magnifiers, speech recognition or voice recognition programs, and Text-to-Speech (TTS) or speech synthesizers

Students in the following video share some of their experiences with the Web-accessibility.

Video: Experiences of Students with Disabilities

For more information about Web-accessibility, visit http://webaim.org/.

For further information about race and ethnicity, visit Chapter 11 (Race and Ethnicity) of the OpenStax Sociology 2E OER textbook: https://cnx.org/contents/AgQDEnLI@12.3:H023hgwT@7/Introduction-to-Race-and-Ethnicity.

For further information about gender, sex, and sexuality, visit Chapter 12 (Gender, Sex, and Sexuality) of the OpenStax Sociology 2E OER textbook: https://cnx.org/contents/AgQDEnLI@12.3:T_-LTWXd@7/Introduction-to-Gender-Sex-and-Sexuality.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

All rights reserved content:

  • Experiences of Students with Disabilities. Authored by: Jared Smith. Located at: https://youtu.be/BEFgnYktC7U. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License/

‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know:

License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

Public domain content:

Adaptions: Relocated learning objectives, added videos, removed Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom video as it appears elsewhere in the text. Added link to OpenStax Sociology 2E Chapter 11: Race and Ethnicity.

OpenStax, Introduction to Sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Feb 19, 2019 http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d@12.3

Added link to OpenStax Sociology 2E Chapter 12: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality.

OpenStax, Introduction to Sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Feb 19, 2019 http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d@12.3


  1. “How Would You Define Diversity?,” Open Ended Student Survey on How to Define Diversity, April 28, 2010, https://sph.unc.edu/files/2013/07/define_diversity.pdf.
  2. Kevin Whitelaw, “Defining Diversity: Beyond Race and Gender,” accessed April 27, 2018, npr.org http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122327104.


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Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2019 by Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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