The LEAP Challenge Blog

Tia Brown McNair
Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and Executive Director for the TRHT Campus Centers

A Third America? Perspectives on Modeling Equity, Engaging Difference

Often, when I am introducing myself to a group, I start by letting the audience know that I am the mother of a four-year old son, and that reality makes me an optimist and a realist (for those of you who don’t know me, I am African American, which may shed some light on that statement). I make this opening remark not to elicit praise, sympathy, or empathy, but to state a fact about my lived experience, and my optimism and skepticism about what will be my son’s lived experience. What usually occurs after I make this announcement is several audience members—often other African American mothers—nod their heads in knowing agreement. They often are the first people to speak to me when the opportunity presents itself. I find this camaraderie refreshing, but I also find myself more focused on the members of the audience who may not understand why being a mother of an African American son makes me both an optimist and a realist. Let me tell you why.

My optimism stems from my current role as the senior director for student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I regularly engage in conversations with my like-minded peers about making excellence inclusive in higher education, and the need for equity in learning at all levels. These conversations tend to reaffirm my belief that “we” in higher education are poised for significant change focused on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity—all leading to new definitions of student success. We often share with the larger community campus examples and information from our member institutions about how educators are asking difficult questions that are the foundation for sustainable change. For example, how do we introduce first-generation, low-income, and/or underrepresented students to the cultures of the academy? How can we alter those cultures to make them more inclusive and responsive to difference? How do we effectively engage traditionally underrepresented students in high-impact practices? How do we create equitable pathways for student success? These questions are at the heart of our conversations for making excellence inclusive, and illustrate the optimism I share with my colleagues about the future. I have no doubt that my son will attend educational institutions that have engaged in these types of discussions and created environments of inclusion, not exclusion. On that level, I am optimistic.

So, why am I a realist?

A recent report from the CollegeBoard, The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color, shows that beyond the “two Americas”—one characterized by opportunity and wealth, and the other characterized by significant social and economic strife—there is a “third America.” That report notes that “this is an America that is almost totally ignored by mainstream society. This America is often captured in popular television documentaries and newspaper stories and includes frightening statistics about unemployment, poverty and high rates of incarceration. The citizens of this third America are primarily men, and mostly men of color. These men live outside the margins of our economic, social and cultural systems.” Unfortunately, we all know that there is profound truth in this statement. We, as a society, have yet to truly understand the “third America.” The third America that is also called the “new majority,” given our changing demographics. When I read this quote for the first time, I thought that the third America was “other” minority males, not my son, and then I realized that when society “sees” my son, it will see, at first glance, this third America. He will encounter the stereotypes associated with the third America because of the color of his skin. That is not a defeatist statement, but reality, if we are being honest.

My colleague, Karen Kalla, director of the Network for Academic Renewal, raised a question recently that should be explored by us all. She said, “We use the terms underrepresented, underserved, low-income, and/or first-generation to describe the new majority students. In reality, aren’t many of these students misrepresented? The use of deficit-minded language to categorize groups of students fails to recognize the skills and talents of the individual.” I completely agree. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are still struggling with individual difference, tolerance, and mutual understanding. Conversations around diversity have become politically correct, or completely disappeared, because some people believe we have evolved beyond those discussions. This is not the case. I think we still have much work to do, as Ramon Gutierrez clearly states in the foreword to the second edition of AAC&U’s publication The Drama of Diversity and Democracy. He notes that “Being aware that we are still divided along racial/ethnic and cultural lines … is not the same as embracing the task of truly confronting our racial legacies.”  He notes further that “there is, in fact, small appetite in our country for probing—or even teaching about … struggles for full inclusion, … struggles that still continue today.”

The continuing need to probe these issues is one reason why we have started this series of blog postings focused on making excellence inclusive, building up to AAC&U’s 2012 Diversity and Learning conference in Baltimore, Maryland. We want to engage in these conversations now.

Over the next several months, my colleagues and I will discuss various topics including, but not limited to, diversity and democracy, new contexts for diversity and learning, campus climates, faculty and staff diversity, and pathways to excellence and equity.  We all enter into these conversations based on our lived experience, and you will hear those perspectives in these blog postings. We invite you to engage with us in this exchange of ideas. Our hope is that our collective efforts in the past, the present, and the future will lay the groundwork for sustainable and honest change. That is the optimist in me talking.