This is how we can talk about diversity: Race, college and a real path forward

We live in a neo-diverse nation, and there is much work to do to achieve mutual respect. Here's how we start

By Rupert W. Nacoste
Published April 26, 2015 7:30PM (EDT)
 (AP/Charles Dharapak)
(AP/Charles Dharapak)

Excerpted from "Taking On Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect"

America just ain’t what it used to be. We no longer live in a society where our racial contacts are controlled and restricted by law. We no longer live in an America where the law makes one racial group more powerful than another. Not only that, but nowadays, every day, each of us has some occasion to interact with a person from another racial, gender, ethnic, physically challenged, religious, mentally challenged, or sexually oriented group. Today our interpersonal encounters with members of other groups are not just in Black and White, not just diverse, but neo-diverse. We are living, working, and interacting in the same desegregated, unisex, neo-diverse spaces. So we no longer live in a society where people can just decide it’s all right to use group hate words any old kind of way, anytime they feel like it.

America just ain’t what it used to be. The night of Tuesday, November 6, 2012, America heard the loud whistle of the Neo-Diversity train coming down the line. It wasn’t because President Barack Hussein Obama won reelection. We heard the whistle and roar of the twenty-first-century neo-diversity main-line train because of how Mr. Obama won. He won through a coalition of groups that are growing from minority to majority status: women, Hispanics, young people, Blacks, lesbians, Asians, single people, gays, and Latinos. President Obama won because he captured the neo-diversity that is America.

With that it became ever more important for Americans to learn to accept and respect our neo-diversity. Not tolerate, but respect and embrace America’s neo-diversity. I am forever flummoxed that people still think the solution to intergroup matters is tolerance. We just have to learn to be more tolerant. Really?

Tolerance is an awful relationship goal. It is awful because to take a stance of tolerance is to assume oneself to be superior to those being tolerated. When someone says we have to be more tolerant, I wonder who the “we” is. Only the more well-established, only the more powerful have to be tolerant. Parents are tolerant of their children. And not all that long ago, men were told that they had to tolerate the silly whims and emotions of women.

Tolerance is based on the assumption of unequal status. In twenty-first-century America, tolerance is outdated, obsolete, and out of place. No matter what racial, bodily conditioned, ethnic, sexually oriented, religious, or gender group an American identifies with, together we are a country of citizens with equal status under the law. We will not secede from that great American truth. And we ain’t going back.

When people talk about going back to the good old days, what days are they talking about? The days of Jim Crow, when dark-skinned people like me had no right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness? Or maybe they mean back to the days when women couldn’t vote and were told to stay in the kitchen and not “worry their pretty little heads” about important matters? No American should want this country to be what it used to be. That is why it is so important for people to learn not to tolerate but to respect and interact with Americans who are not like them. That is why it is important for Americans to accept and respect the neo-diversity leadership of those we elect to office. Right now instead of acceptance, too many in America are living in a state of anxiety and anger about the neo-diversity that is in all our everyday lives.

In 2005 I could see my North Carolina State University students struggling with their anxiety about the neo-diversity of our campus. Their struggle was made clear to me by an interaction I had with a student who was taking my “Introduction to Social Psychology” course. That spring semester I was teaching the section on race as an interpersonal phenomenon. I teach this topic late in the semester because I want students to have gotten to know me. Otherwise, having me, a broad-shouldered, six-foot-three-inch, 270-pound, dark-skinned Black man as the professor might dampen the discussion of racial dynamics. To a certain degree my strategy had worked in the past, but this time the class of two hundred mostly White students froze up. The tension in the room was palpable. Discussion was strained.

After class I returned to my office. I sat and waited for a student from that class to show up for a previously arranged appointment. When this young White female came into my office and took her seat, we exchanged our quick hellos, I said,

“Sorry, but before we get to your questions, I have a question.”

She looked at me as if to say, “I knew he was going to do this.”

By that point in the semester my students know me pretty well. Sometimes they think they know more than they actually do or could. But for sure they know that I notice things and will ask about what I think is going on.

“Did you feel that in the class today?”

Still looking at me in that way, she hesitated.

“Yes . . .” she finally said.

“What was that?” I asked.

She looked into my eyes then dropped her gaze to the floor. I waited.

Again, she looked up, dropped her gaze briefly then looked back up at me.

“Everybody says we have to be more accepting,” she said. “But nobody tells us what that means.”

This was a profound statement about the state of neo-diversity on our campus and elsewhere in America. During orientation, some university administrator runs out in front of the crowd of four thousand new students at North Carolina State University and says something like, “Now that you are here, you have to accept all kinds of people.” Looking out over the crowd of young people who are eager for guidance, that person in effect says, “Good luck with that!”

College and university students are told that they have to accept all kinds of people. But, as this young woman said, nobody tells students what that means. Students are left to their own devices.

My interaction with that young White woman would not leave me alone. It called to me. It started me down the path of creating a new academic course. I was disturbed, you see, to hear this young person say, “Everybody says we have to be more accepting, but nobody tells us what that means.” I was disturbed because I know for sure America just ain’t what it used to be.

Born in 1951, I grew up in deep-South Louisiana—the Jim Crow South, that time of legal racial segregation in America. I was not allowed to, and so did not, go to school with White kids because it was against the law. For me, “a colored person,” it was against the law to be in school with White kids. Yet today we live in an America where neither law nor anything else controls our racial encounters and interactions. Today we live in a time and circumstance in which contact with people who do not look like us is unavoidable.

Called by that young woman’s profound insight, in 2006 I created a new undergraduate social psychology course, “Interpersonal Relationships and Race.” I did so because I also knew that in America we have been traveling on a fast-moving train but on the wrong line. Hear the poet Sterling Brown:

This is the wrong line we been riding
This route to get us where we got to go.
Got to get transferred to a new direction
We can stand so much, and then don’t stand no mo’.

Not willing to stand any mo’, I left the comfort of my office. Now I stood at the train station and waited. When the old Wrong-Line train pulled in, I called all of the students off who would come. For a while those young people stood on the station platform confused, looking at me and at the same time trying to read outdated schedules of the train lines. But I pulled those from their hands. I gave them the schedule for the Neo-Diversity line.

Good kids: female, Black, Muslim, White, homosexual, Christian, Arab, heterosexual, Northern, male, Jewish, Southern, Brown. They’re good kids and having had one class with me already, they recognized and trusted me as I called them off the Wrong-Line train. So they got off and followed me inside the station. I directed them to the benches and they sat. I started giving them some idea of what I was going to teach. I gave them enough information so that they knew I was going to teach them concepts that would show them how to live in the social world of twenty-first-century neo-diverse America.

I was compelled to do this because I knew that we had been putting our children on that Wrong-Line train and then telling them that when they reach the wrong destination, they’ll be all right. “You just have to be more accepting,” the adults say. Almost cruelly, we send them on their way unprepared. We put them in situations where they are left to wonder: How should I interact? Should I say something? What should I say? How should I say it? Damn it, what are the rules?

As a college professor, I know this. Even so, seeing the evidence of that confusion in a real person’s life is painful to me. I understand that there are times when we as individuals are confused. Sometimes that confusion is just the way of things. But there are times when our confusion hurts us, or when because of our confusion we hurt others. Then it is not so easy to pass it off, because at those times, in those instances, it matters. That is a confusion that matters.

Here’s the thing: After teaching these young people for a while, in my students’ writings I see their confusion about neo-diversity in their interpersonal lives. Every semester, one or more of my students writes, “For me, coming to North Carolina State University was a culture shock.” Reflecting on their own social experiences, students who take my course tell a personal story that shows why and how so many young people struggle with the demands of interacting with someone from a different physically capable, gender, racial, mentally capable, ethnic, religious, or sexually oriented group. A story like this:

My freshman semester at NC State I was enrolled in tennis PE. The second week of classes the professor selected partners for each one, and I was assigned to be the tennis partner for a Black male. It was one of my first interactions with an African American and his first interaction with Guatemalan Hispanic.

Our first interaction was nothing but awkward and weird. Not only because it was interracial, but also because it was the first week of class when no one knows anybody. Before we started to play, we approached each other slowly and shook hands as we introduced ourselves.

I said, “Hi, my name is Carlos.”

He responded, “Hi, my name is D, it is nice to meet you.”

Although our greeting was polite you could tell that there was some tension between us. I remember standing a little too far, and having a nonreceiving body posture. I had no prior experience with interactions with a Black male, I was guided by stereotypes and was afraid to say the wrong thing or appear to act unwelcoming even though I was already doing it without noticing.

When students enroll in my “Interpersonal Relationships and Race” class, I get them off the Wrong-Line train. As they sit in the station, I begin to give them an orientation, an outline of the lessons they need to learn to be ready for the Neo-Diversity train that is coming down the line.

And a funny thing happens every semester. As the train I called these students off of sits for a little while, other people begin to get off Wrong-Line as well. Intrigued by seeing those young people get off and come into the station, some adults get off the Wrong-Line train and they, too, come into the train station. Some of those adults start to listen to the outline of the lessons. Having heard something that caught their attention, some decide to stay, to let the Wrong-Line train move on without them.

So all of a sudden I am being asked to teach about neo-diversity to people from adult communities: elderly (mostly White) women from One-By-One, the race relations improvement group from Sanford, North Carolina, the Wednesday evening congregational learning community of Raleigh’s (White) First Baptist Church, and the nursing staff from UNC-Hospitals.

Just my outline of the meaning of neo-diversity catches people’s attention. Everyone had been sensing that something new was happening, but they couldn’t identify it; they couldn’t name it.

Sensing something is not enough. “Feels like rain,” we say, but we don’t know for sure and are often wrong. Standing in that train station, talking to the students I had pulled off the Wrong-Line, I was in more demand than I anticipated because I was not only talking about what people were sensing; I was naming it, describing it, and explaining it. Something new was, in fact, happening. America, you see, just won’t be what it used to be, many long years ago.


People—students and nonstudents, young and old, male and female, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, homosexual, and heterosexual had been sensing the Neo-Diversity train coming down the line. All kinds of people were sensing that truth. Some of those people wanted to get ready. Me, I started my teaching about neo-diversity with college students.

To get them ready, I know that my students need more than hearsay teaching. They need me to activate in them a new mindset that will give them the strength to lift off their backs the heavy baggage that hearsay teaching has put there. If I am to help, I have to teach in a way that enables these young travelers to develop the faith they need to see through the fog of their neodiversity anxieties to see the truth.

On the first day of class, I let the students know we have real work to do.

I exhort them:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” I declare. “That’s what he said,” I go on.

On that fateful night, when it seemed he knew he would be dead the next day, the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we’ve got some difficult days ahead. On that fateful night, after so many battles had been won he said, we’ve got some difficult days ahead.

Understand, if you don’t already know, Dr. King always chose his words carefully. That’s why I am convinced that on that night in Memphis, Tennessee, it was no accident that he said, we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But what, what was he thinking of? What was he alerting us to? What did he know? It was clear he knew, somehow, he already knew.

And what I believe Dr. King knew was that change is difficult. And I believe he knew, too, that the most difficult change of all still awaited America. Change in the interpersonal environment.

He was telling us to get ready, get ready! For what? For neo-diversity.

He was alerting us to the coming Neo-Diversity train. Dr. King could already see that with the elimination of the laws of racial oppression and segregation, all Americans would have to learn how to interact with, travel with each other no matter the groups we come from. He could already see that with elimination of the laws of racial oppression and segregation, America’s diversity would grow. He could see that it would mean that all Americans would struggle with the question “Who are the ‘we,’ and who are among the ‘they’?” He was telling us to get ready for the difficult days of learning how to interact with each other with respect.

All of you here who have gotten off the Wrong-Line train have gotten off with some unnecessary baggage that you are going to have to leave behind. Understand that the lessons I will impart are not lessons for any one group. That idea is a piece of unnecessary baggage.

These lessons are not and will not be about fixing White people. These lessons are necessary because all of you have been too long on the Wrong-Line train on which you were given some obsolete baggage to carry. That includes some bad lessons about interacting with people who are not members of your particular group. That unnecessary baggage does not depend on which group you are from.

There are no innocent.

In our social interactions, none of us is innocent.

That’s why we’ve got some difficult days ahead.

So get ready, I say, . . . get ready.

Then I give them a reading assignment. Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name is a historical memoir by a White man who, as a ten-year-old boy, was witness to racial events in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1970. Tyson is now a PhD-trained scholar of African America history. The book jacket of his historical memoir reads:

On May 11, 1970, Henry Marrow, a twenty-three-year-old black veteran, walked into a crossroads store owned by Robert Teel and came out running. Teel and two of his sons chased and beat Marrow, then killed him in public as he pleaded for his life.

Like many small Southern towns, the civil rights movement had barely touched Oxford. But in the wake of the killing, young African Americans took to the streets. While lawyers battled in the courthouse, the Klan raged in the shadows and black Vietnam veterans torched the town’s tobacco warehouses. Tyson’s father, the pastor of Oxford’s all-white Methodist church, urged the town to come to terms with its bloody racial history. In the end, however, the Tyson family was forced to move away.

Tim Tyson’s riveting narrative of that fiery summer brings gritty blues truth, soaring gospel vision, and down-home humor to a shocking episode of our history. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Blood Done Sign My Name is a classic portrait of an unforgettable time and place.

My students are assigned to read the book in thirds. After reading each section, students write a reaction to that part of the reading. Not an analytic reaction but a personal “What hit me” reaction. Breathless come those reactions.

“I almost don’t know where to start.”

“It hit me like a pile of bricks.”

“This is not what I learned in history class.”

“I cannot imagine.”

“It baffles me.”

“It made me cringe.”

“I was astounded.”

“I cannot believe that this is actually based on a true story.”

“I find it shocking that such racial discrimination was happening in my state.”

“I reacted right away with shock and sorrow.”

“It breaks my heart, and frankly, it pisses me off.”

“With every turn of the page, I feel my blood boiling. . . .”

“The stories and ideas made me gag.”

“It brings over a sadness in me that is uncomfortable, painful even.”

“The amount of violence is absolutely crazy.”

“I was shocked by all the violence.”

“Why were people so cruel? Why?”

“This book is appalling, intriguing, heartbreaking, and inspiring.”

“My eyes have been opened.”

“I never realized how damaged this nation really was.”

“I was shocked.”

“It left me with my jaw dropped open.”

“I knew things were different back then than they are now, but wow!”

“Many emotions, sadness and pure anger.”

“Wow, just wow!”

“As a young White woman I have been severely lied to about past events in NC.”

“I was surprised by how much I really didn’t know.”

“Wait a minute, this is the story of a little White boy living in the segregated South. Oops.”

“It was absolutely astonishing to me that my hometown was mentioned in this book.”

“So eye-opening.”

“Shocking to read.”

“I was really caught off guard.”

“I do not like this book.”

“Where to start, there are so many things to talk about.”

“I still cannot wrap my head around it. It is hard to comprehend. Shock and awe.”

“Blew my mind. I was speechless, dumbfounded. Absolutely mind-blowing.”

“A powerful book. Heartbreaking; tears were in my eyes.”

“I put the book down and thought about it.”

Such are these young travelers’ reactions to the first third of Tyson’s witnessed, documented, true telling of America’s racial history. Here is a more extended version of those reactions from a White female. She wrote:

I was truly amazed that I had never heard of Henry Marrow. I was surprised that the schools never mentioned the horrific murder of this young man. As I read these chapters it became clear that Henry Marrow’s death sparked a revolution among the Black townsfolk. Why is something so important, someone so important, forgotten throughout the years? The book portrayed a movie in my head as I read these chapters. I saw with my own eyes Henry Marrow running for his life, I saw the Teels shoot Ben Chavis in the face at close range, and I saw the blows the Teels dealt Marrow as he lay dying in the street.

Why so much shock and awe? Well, how would you react if you found out that all you were led to believe about something turned out to be a sales pitch?

Excerpted from "Taking On Diversity: How We Can Move From Anxiety to Respect" by Rupert W. Nacoste. Published by Prometheus Books. Copyright 2015 by Rupert W. Nacoste. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Rupert W. Nacoste

Rupert W. Nacoste is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University (NCSU) where he has also served as the Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs. At NCSU he is the recipient of numerous awards for teaching excellence, including the 2013 UNC Board of Governors Teaching Excellence Award. He is the author of Making Gumbo in the University and has lectured frequently on diversity issues.

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