What language do you speak? What is your religion? What holidays do you celebrate? What is your racial identification? What is your ethnic identity? What is your culture?
Culture is that which shapes us; it shapes our identity and influences our behavior. Culture is our “way of being,” more specifically, it refers to the shared language, beliefs, values, norms, behaviors, and material objects that are passed down from one generation to the next.1
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2009 population in America was:
- 80% White
- 16% Hispanic or Latino origin (may be of any race)
- 13% African American
- 5% Asian
- 1% American Indian/Alaskan Native
- 0.2% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander2
Each race encompasses a multitude of different ethnic groups. An ethnic group refers to people who are closely related to each other through characteristics such as culture, language, and religion.3 There are many ethnic groups in the United States, due in large part to its immigrant population; each of these groups contributes to America’s cultural heritage. From African Americans to Russian Americans, the United States is one of the most diverse nations in terms of culture.
What does it mean to be “culturally diverse”?
The term “culturally diverse” is often used interchangeably with the concept of “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism is defined as:
“…a system of beliefs and behaviors that recognizes and respects the presence of all diverse groups in an organization or society, acknowledges andvalues their socio-cultural differences, and encourages and enables their continued contribution within an inclusive cultural context which empowers all within the organization or society.4
Sociologist Dr. Caleb Rosado, who specializes in diversity and multiculturalism, described seven important actions involved in the definition of multiculturalism:5
- recognition of the abundant diversity of cultures;
- respect for the differences;
- acknowledging the validity of different cultural expressions and contributions;
- valuing what other cultures offer;
- encouraging the contribution of diverse groups;
- empowering people to strengthen themselves and others to achieve their maximum potential by being critical of their own biases; and
- celebrating rather than just tolerating the differences in order to bring about unity through diversity.
Why is cultural diversity a “good thing”?
Culture is the lens with which we evaluate everything around us; we evaluate what is proper or improper, normal or abnormal, through our culture. If we are immersed in a culture that is unlike our own we may experience culture shock and become disoriented when we come into contact with a fundamentally different culture. People naturally use their own culture as the standard to judge other cultures; however, passing judgment could reach a level where people begin to discriminate against others whose “ways of being” are different than their own—essentially, we tend to fear that which we do not understand.
Cultural diversity is important because our country, workplaces, and schools increasingly consist of various cultural, racial, and ethnic groups. We can learn from one another, but first we must have a level of understanding about each other in order to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. Learning about other cultures helps us understand different perspectives within the world in which we live, and helps dispel negative stereotypes and personal biases about different groups.
In addition, cultural diversity helps us recognize and respect “ways of being” that are not necessarily our own, so that as we interact with others we can build bridges to trust, respect, and understanding across cultures. Furthermore, this diversity makes our country a more interesting place to live, as people from diverse cultures contribute language skills, new ways of thinking, new knowledge, and different experiences.
How can you support cultural diversity?
- Increase your level of understanding about other cultures by interacting with people outside of your own culture—meaningful relationships may never develop simply due to a lack of understanding.
- Avoid imposing values on others that may conflict or be inconsistent with cultures other than your own.
- When interacting with others who may not be proficient in English, recognize that their limitations in English proficiency in no way reflects their level of intellectual functioning.
- Recognize and understand that concepts within the helping profession, such as family, gender roles, spirituality, and emotional well-being, vary significantly among cultures and influence behavior.
- Within the workplace, educational setting, and/or clinical setting, advocate for the use of materials that are representative of the various cultural groups within the local community and the society in general.
- Intervene in an appropriate manner when you observe others engaging in behaviors that show cultural insensitivity, bias, or prejudice.
- Be proactive in listening, accepting, and welcoming people and ideas that are different from your own.6
Cultural diversity supports the idea that every person can make a unique and positive contribution to the larger society because of, rather than in spite of, their differences. Imagine a place where diversity is recognized and respected; various cultural ideas are acknowledged and valued; contributions from all groups are encouraged; people are empowered to achieve their full potential; and differences are celebrated.
“Diversity is the one true thing we have in common.
Celebrate it every day.”
Dr. Lisa D. Belfield
Dr. Lisa D. Belfield is an adjunct professor in the Kaplan University Human Services Department. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mansfield University, a master’s degree in social relations from Lehigh University, and a doctorate degree in educational leadership from Wilmington University. In addition to teaching, she works as a methodologist and content expert on doctoral study committees, and is an education research consultant for LeadingEd Consultant Network. She has worked at organizations and institutions in positions which focused on behavior modification and therapeutic support, social welfare, college admissions, and education research.
Dr. Belfield’s current research interests include: self-efficacy; the mentor-mentee relationship in higher education; and the impact of multiple social identities (race, gender, social class) on personal, social, academic, and career functioning.
Dr. Belfield continues to have valuable experiences, lifelong mentors, and friendships that have made her personal and professional life quite meaningful and fulfilling. As a professor, she enjoys engaging students in taking a critical look at the world in which they thrive, and encourages them to see themselves as lifelong learners in an intellectual arena. One of her favorite quotes is, “Change is inevitable; growth is optional.” She encourages everyone to choose the option to grow.
1. R. Schaefer Sociology: A brief introduction (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006).
2. U.S. Census Bureau, USA QuickFacts, accessed December 2010.
4. C. Rosado, What Makes a School Multicultural?, accessed December 2010.
6. Adapted from Promoting Cultural Diversity and Cultural Competency, accessed December 2010.
7. www.thinkexist.com, accessed December 2010.
(Editor’s Note (1/30/16): In response to Pres. Donald Trump’s immigration order to close U.S. borders to refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which has impacted scientists and students, we are republishing the following article from our 2014 special report on how diversity powers science and innovation.)
Collaboration has been a recurring theme in science and technology in recent years. The life of the mind is increasingly transnational in nature. It roams centers of excellence from every continent, linked by communications of great speed and breadth.Twice we have looked at collaboration in our State of the World's Science reports, last year with a focus on innovation, the year before on basic research. Here we address it again, from the standpoint of the individual.
The word “diversity” is shorthand for a vast effort to remake society to include everyone—not just those in privileged positions—in politics, culture and the pursuit of happiness. This ambition goes well beyond the scope of this report; we have stayed within the realm of science and its activities. Because we prefer to look at evidence, we take the opportunity to focus on the empirical grounding of diversity, which often gets lost in the larger conversation.
Diversity, it turns out, goes to the heart of how to do research and innovation effectively. In the scientific literature, it is clear that diversity speaks directly to the quality and effectiveness of teams. As Katherine W. Phillips tells us, starting on page 42, when we have to work with people who are not like ourselves, we tend to prepare more thoroughly and work harder to marshal our arguments, and we do better work as a result. Diversity is beneficial for teams precisely because we react differently to people who are different from us. If the end goal is excellence, diversity is an essential ingredient.
For diversity to be effective, the working environment must be right. For an individual, it takes conscious effort to be on the watch for unconscious biases and to overcome them. For an organization, it takes processes, procedures and an ethos of acceptance. Victoria Plaut points out, beginning on page 52, that groups who abandon color-blind policies and embrace the differences among their members in ways that do not stereotype or pigeonhole tend to be successful in taking advantage of what diversity has to offer.
We do not treat diversity exclusively as a utilitarian matter in this special section, of course. Science imposes the discipline of having to find the best ideas among varied teams of people, which gives scientists and engineers the opportunity to be pioneers in cultural change. So we have sprinkled this package with essays from some extraordinary people who are embracing that challenge.
We would like to have included a Diversity Index—a measure of how nations fare when it comes to inclusiveness in the science and technology workforce. At the moment that is too tall an order, however. In a welcome development from two of the world's most visible technology companies, Google and Apple recently released data on the diversity, or lack of it, of their respective workforces. It is a drop in the information bucket, however. Data overall are scarce, for several reasons.
Racial and ethnic identity, for one, are hard to define consistently. A United Nations census found that two thirds of nations categorized their populations along these lines but used a kaleidoscope of terms— race, ethnic origin, nationality, ancestry, tribal, Aboriginal, and so on. Many countries track the poor and underprivileged, but these categories mean different things in different places. Disability is even more difficult to pin down. Gender is easier to define (although ambiguities exist there as well), but little information is gathered that is specific to the science-related workforce. “Comprehensive, internationally comparable data on the worldwide science and engineering workforce do not exist,” says the National Science Foundation in its Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 report. From what we do know, however, it's clear that we can do better.
To that end, we believe that data should be a high priority. Scientists pride themselves on their objectivity, but personal experience and point of view have a lot to do with what questions get asked in the first place and how researchers go about answering them. The people in science and engineering are driving the world's most vital engine of prosperity and new ideas. Who are they?