Myths and Misconceptions

Assimilation is the same as Inclusion

In some cases, when individuals seek access to a space, those who hold power or privilege in that space require that those joining the group change aspects of themselves to conform to already established norms. When those seeking meaningful inclusion protest this requirement, those holding power in the space often think that it “isn’t a big deal.” However, being told – even implicitly – that some aspect of yourself is inappropriate, unprofessional, or unattractive can take a significant mental toll on someone. The expectation that one must alter something about themselves to be included in a group or space can create feelings of shame, self-hatred, self-doubt, and inadequacy. Real inclusiveness accepts and celebrates difference, whereas assimilation attempts to erase it.  

Diversity is Pointless

Though some might say that diversity in a given space, workplace, or club is useful only for fulfilling requirements and scoring “political correctness” points, it is important for many reasons. Increasing diversity allows for a profusion of distinct perspectives to coexist and complement one another. Everyone comes to a space informed by their own upbringing, personalities, and experiences, and these perspectives can vary significantly depending on one’s cultural background, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and racialized identity.  Groups that include only individuals who share similar upbringings and experiences result in the perspectives held by excluded individuals being completely absent from consideration. Moreover, including only one individual who holds an underrepresented identity can create a tokenizing effect whereby one individual comes to be expected to represent the needs and wishes of a diverse group of people. This phenomenon can be especially harmful if, for example, a white woman becomes representative of the needs of all women because then the specific barriers excluding women of colour from the group might go ignored.

Meaningful diversity is especially important to ensure in academia, at all levels and in all disciplines. In addition to the important role played by equitable hiring and admission in combatting systems of oppression, diversity in academia reduces bias, brings in new ideas, and offers valuable perspectives. When multiple minds work together they produce more and better ideas, and are able to solve more complex problems than a single mind can by working alone – this advice applies as much to the importance of encouraging diversity in universities as it does to encouraging kids to cooperate while working on a group project together. 

Diversity is Divisive

Some may say that welcoming or acknowledging difference is a leads only towards divisiveness, or that pointing out how we are not all the same causes conflict to occur where it otherwise would not. While it is of course possible that disagreements might arise from conversations about diversity, it is important to consider the nature of the disagreement and whom stifling it harms.

In fact, the problems that arise from encouraging diversity often are caused by those invested in maintaining the status quo – one in which many are excluded from academia, jobs, or other institutions based on their race, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. To some extent, the conflict that arises from commitments to diversity are just inevitable growing pains. Even if increasing diversity results in some pushback, it is important to prioritize people over avoiding potential disagreement. Temporary tension in a group over the need to expand our worldview may be uncomfortable, but is necessary and fruitful when the result is the long-term promotion of diversity and acceptance of individuals who would otherwise be excluded from employment, academia, or a community.

Safe(r) Spaces Are About Being PC

Safe(r) spaces do not exist to create bubbles in which debate or disagreement is banned, or to satisfy a requirement that we not offend one another. Rather, safe(r) spaces exist, or are worked towards, to carve out areas wherein certain oppressive attitudes are challenged rather than accepted, expected, or celebrated. Safe(r) spaces are necessary because in most of the spaces we spend time in, people’s right to self-definition, or to express experiences of discrimination, are denied and silenced. Part of safe(r) spaces might include attending to, and ceasing to use, oppressive language, but being “politically correct” is not a goal in and of itself. Instead, creating safe(r) spaces means respecting people’s needs and identities, particularly when they are not respected outside of these spaces. Safer spaces create environments that foster creativity, openness, and learning among all who share the space. 

Feelings of Discomfort Are a Violation of the Safe(r) Space

The goal of safe(r) spaces is not to make everyone comfortable, or even to make everyone happy. Not only would this goal be impossible to meet, but it would direct energy and attention towards the wrong problem, and ignore the necessity and utility of discomfort being felt by some people. Being confronted with one’s own privilege, and how one benefits from and is complicit with oppression is rarely comfortable, but it is impossible to work towards combating a problem if you do not first acknowledge that it exists. Feeling uncomfortable is much different than feeling unsafe, and in some cases feeling comfortable requires that we do not challenge each other to address the ways that we are contributing to making others feel unsafe. A safe(r) space is one in which safety is prioritized over desires for comfort or avoidance of awkwardness. 

Every Safe Space Should Welcome Everyone Equally

The idea that every safe(r) space must be available for everyone’s use is often mobilized by people who are privileged in a certain way and are excluded from a space open exclusively to people who are not. For example, a white person might become angry to hear that they are not welcome at an event organized by and for people of colour. The privileged person who is excluded might even condemn this space for appearing to replicate the same oppressive and discriminatory forces they’re ostensibly made in response to.

However, just like a given safe(r) space is not dedicated to the goal of everyone feeling comfortable, but rather to serve a sort of refuge from prevailing systems of oppression, closed or designated spaces are created because of the understanding that sometimes even well-intentioned people make mistakes that might disrupt the feeling of safety for the people those spaces are designed to help.

There is an important difference between being surrounded by people who share your experience and being surrounded by people who are simply open to, or accepting of it. The criticism of closed or designated spaces almost always ends up prioritizing privileged perspectives and feelings. Real allyship means accepting that sometimes you are not wanted or needed, and taking direction from the people you are committed to supporting rather than prioritizing your own interests or comfort. 

The Myth of Meritocracy

A meritocracy is a system in which people advance or are rewarded exclusively based on merit, or the quality of their work. If universities were meritocracies, it would mean that climbing the ladder of academic success, ie: receiving praise in classes, or being promoted to better academic jobs, is solely a function of one’s intelligence or ability. However, universities, like many other institutions, are not meritocracies; numerous studies and countless personal accounts have proven that the same material will garner more positive responses when people think it is coming from a white man than from anyone else. Thus the classroom is not an equal playing field if conscious or unconscious bias can result in certain students gaining favour over others based simply on aspects of their identity. In the university context as well, all the intelligence and effort in the world will not make a difference in one’s academic success if one cannot afford to attend university in the first place. Structural oppression creates, for many people hoping to attend and succeed at university, countless barriers and hurdles, making success less a reflection of merit and more a reflection of pre-existing access to privilege and power. 

Equal and Equitable Mean the Same Thing

Equal treatment and equitable treatment are much different approaches to supporting people at university. Put simply, equal treatment means that everyone is treated the same, and equitable treatment means that people are treated according to their individual needs in the context of power imbalances. Equitable treatment is an important part of combatting oppression at universities because it acknowledges that not everyone is coming from the same background or experiences the same barriers. Equity work is based on a fundamental belief that people deserve to have their needs acknowledged and accommodated for, even if others do not have those same needs.

People who do not receive support in breaking down barriers to access may interpret equity work as simply “special treatment” for some at the expense of others. However, belonging to a privileged group means that one already receives naturalized, automatic, benefits and special treatment. Many institutions, including universities, were built on assumptions that the people who attended would fit a certain role (ie: be physically abled, be white, be a man, etc) and it takes active, deliberate effort to enable those historically excluded from universities to be able to access, and have a positive experience at, these institutions.  

Only Those Who Can Handle University the Way It Is Belong There

Many people who struggle to gain access to, or succeed in, universities are told that if they cannot handle university the way it is – without personal accommodations – they do not need or deserve to be included. However, because many universities were built with a very specific, privileged person in mind, to not institute equitable treatment at universities would be to condemn someone for not fitting seamlessly into a system designed at best without them in mind and at worst directly meant to exclude them. Many equity measures are simply temporary fixes until we are able to make universities truly inclusive and accessible to all. For example, allowing individual students to take exams in wheelchair accessible buildings while the rest of their class takes the exam in another space is just a temporary solution until all university buildings are physically accessible to everyone. 

If a Group Isn't Represented, It Means They Can't Succeed

One element of structural oppression is the tendency for the success or failure of an individual from a marginalized group to be taken as representative of that group, while those who are relatively "unmarked" are seen as representing only themselves. This phenomenon comes to support the assumption that the absence or underrepresentation of a group from a university indicates that they are incompetent or undeserving. In addition to the extreme pressure this can put on marginalized individuals to exceed in university, it fails to consider the effect of systemic oppression, which causes people from marginalized communities to have to fight against stereotypes and implicit and explicit bias at every step.

Many people who have more than enough competence in an area cannot or do not pursue it because of the likelihood that they will not be given opportunities, or even the bare minimum chance in their field. University can be a hostile and alienating climate for people historically and currently excluded, making it less likely for them to feel able to seek access, and more necessary for equity efforts to be put in place to remedy this exclusion. 

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