Diversity at the university
"Acceptance of diversity would enhance the participation of individuals and communities that otherwise feel unwanted and marginalized." - source unknown
The term 'diversity' has become increasingly vital in academics, research, government as well as the corporate world. A higher education institution as a center for knowledge, innovation, and international collaboration must acknowledge diverse backgrounds of its students and employees. Many German universities promote gender equality for women, family-friendliness, and disability inclusion whereas efforts to address broader spectrum of diversity & equity are sparse. An organization like Saarland University needs motivated and competent employees to realize its ambitions. It wants to attract and retain highly qualified and committed people in research, teaching, transfer, continuing education, technology, administration and management. Hence, it must enable inclusiveness and equal opportunities, ensure information and participation, and offer good working conditions and reliable career prospects. This requires a holistic understanding of diversity, leadership and organization. The UdS works to ensure that all its members can develop their potential to the best of their abilities.
Simultaneously, Saarland University, located in the tri-border regions, has a unique place to attract students from different European regions. About 20% of the students come from abroad from 120 nations around the world. People with diverse backgrounds such as first-generation students, students with disability and chronic illness, students with care responsibilities, students who identify as Queer and Transgender as well as students from multiple religious and migratory backgrounds who speak different languages come here. Saarland University strives to reflect social diversity within the university as well and seeks to attract students who are underrepresented in this sense. It critically reflects on the common ways of access, but also on its everyday practice in dealing with diversity, with conflicts and discrimination. At the same time, the university wants to offer students more opportunities and possibilities to develop their talents. .
For the diverse community to succeed, we must tackle the difficult topics of power, discrimination, and privilege within the system. Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw developed the concept of intersectionality that helps to identify the advantages and disadvantages experienced by people based on the combination of their social and political identities. Most of us have a combination of identities that give us privileges and disadvantages. Through intersectionality lens, one can assess their power and privilege due to belonging to a certain group and how their group benefits at the cost of another group.
Sometimes people argue that they are not directly involved in intentional discrimination of another individual and treat everyone equally. However, it is crucial to understand how historical as well as contemporary systems and structures often benefit one group more than the other. The impact of which is felt over many years and different generations.
If we look at the higher education structure, we will agree that in current times access to university education is a privilege. Individual traits of intelligence and grit are vital yet there are many other variables that make access to higher education easier for some than others irrespective of their intellectual or creative abilities. It goes back to access to good childhood education, teachers who believed in you, and parents who advocated on your behalf as well as provided for basic needs and safety. Other criteria such as German as a primary language, access to money, ability to participate in personal development activities, access to urban resources, safe school experiences instead of bullying, adds up to how one is prepared to function within this structure. The lower your score here, the higher the struggles and barriers you need to overcome to make it to the university. Yet, there are many among us who have reached here despite the challenges. When we acknowledge diversity, we acknowledge the barriers people overcame to find their path to this university. In doing so, we also acknowledge those who could not gain access to higher education and those who reached here but failed by our existing system because their learning and interpersonal needs found little or no support.
Power & Privilege Check your privilege!
Power: The ability to decide who has access to resources; the capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others, oneself, and/or the course of events.
Institutional power: The ability or official authority to decide what is best for others. The ability to decide who will have access to resources. The capacity to exercise control over others.
Prejudice: A judgment or opinion that is formed on insufficient grounds before facts are known or in disregard of facts that contradict it. Prejudices are learned and can be unlearned.
Stereotype: An exaggerated or distorted belief that attributes characteristics to members of a particular group, simplistically lumping them together and refusing to acknowledge differences among members of the group.
Oppression: The combination of prejudice and institutional power which creates a system that discriminates against some groups (often called “target groups”) and benefits other groups (often called “dominant groups”). Examples of these systems are racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, ageism, and anti-Semitism. These systems enable dominant groups to exert control over target groups by limiting their rights, freedom, and access to basic resources such as health care, education, employment, and housing.
Four Levels of Oppression/”isms” and Change:
- Personal: Values, Beliefs, Feelings
- Interpersonal: Actions, Behaviors, Language
- Institutional: Rules, Policies, Procedures
- Cultural: Beauty, Truth, Right
Privilege: Privilege operates on personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels and gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups. In Germany, privilege is granted to people who have membership in one or more of these social identity groups:
- White people;
- Able-bodied people;
- Middle or owning class people;
- Middle-aged people;
- Native German-speaking people
Privilege is characteristically invisible to people who have it. People in dominant groups often believe that they have earned the privileges that they enjoy or that everyone could have access to these privileges if only they worked to earn them. In fact, privileges are unearned and they are granted to people in the dominant groups whether they want those privileges or not, and regardless of their stated intent.
Unlike targets of oppression, people in dominant groups are frequently unaware that they are members of the dominant group due to the privilege of being able to see themselves as persons rather than stereotypes.
Targets of oppression: Targets of oppression are members of social identity groups that are disenfranchised, exploited, and victimized in a variety of ways by agents of oppression and the agent’s systems or institutions. Targets of oppression are subject to containment, having their choices and movements restricted and limited, are seen and treated as expendable and replaceable, without an individual identity apart from their group, and are compartmentalized into narrowly defined roles.
Targets of oppression are people subjected to exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Targets of oppression are kept in their place by the agent of oppression’s ideology, which supports oppression by denying that it exists and blames the conditions of oppression on actions of the targets.
Targets of oppression have fewer “life chances” or benefits as a result of their membership in a particular social group. As examples, there is a higher likelihood that African males will be arrested than Caucasian males; there is a greater chance that males will have a higher salary than females; and there is a higher probability that persons using a wheelchair for mobility will have fewer job opportunities than non-disabled people.
Agents of oppression: Agents of oppression are members of the dominant social groups in Germany, privileged by birth or acquisition, which knowingly or unknowingly exploit and reap unfair advantage over members of groups that are targets of oppression. Agents of oppression are also trapped by the system of institutionalized oppression that benefits them and are confined to roles and prescribed behaviors. In German culture, agents have the power to define the “norm” for what is reality and they see themselves as normal or proper, whereas targets are likely to be labeled as deviant, evil, abnormal, substandard, or defective.
For many of us, it is much more difficult to identify and describe the ways in which we experience the world as agents of oppression, because these characteristics are privileged. Privilege often operates in an unconscious, invisible manner. We believe that part of the process of becoming anti-racist allies involves exploring and understanding how privilege has operated in our own lives.
Not sure how privilege plays a role in our day-to-day life? This activity demonstrates how privilege or discrimination is experienced at a university in Germany, through the intersectionality lens:
Downloaded from www.vanderbilt.edu. Edited for Saarland University, Germany 2021.
Definitions were abridged from:
© Leaven 2003 Doing Our Own Work: A Seminar for Anti-Racist White Women
© Visions, Inc. and the MSU Extension Multicultural Awareness Workshop
Additional reading resource
- McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Retrieved from https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack. This is a classic article about the concept of “White Privilege” and what it looks like.