Voices in Education

Music, Diversity, and Mission in One Black Student Organization
The term diversity is exceedingly common—some would even say conspicuous—in discussions of higher education, yet there is no consensus as to its import or even a precise definition. On one hand, some proponents of fostering racially and ethnically diverse student bodies in higher education facilely proclaim that diversity is crucial, as college is considered a training ground for life in our multicultural society. Indeed, colleges and universities are even frequently evaluated on the racial, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity of each incoming class of students, and affirmative action policies in admissions are based on the rationale that the presence of campus diversity enriches the learning environment. On the other hand, there are those who challenge the legitimacy of having higher education institutions take active measures to ensure campus racial diversity, including through the use of affirmative action. We need to look no further than to the recent Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and the broader history in which it is situated for evidence of this robust and continuing debate.

Yet, as we debate the benefits of campus diversity, a more critical understanding of the concept is needed—benefits for whom and with what outcomes? This question is especially salient in the case of black students—from across the diaspora—at elite institutions of higher education. So-called diversity efforts have not always been affirming to students of color broadly, and black students in particular.
My own research with the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, a choir regarded as Harvard University’s oldest black student organization and now its largest multicultural organization, challenges overly simplistic notions of what diversity means. Particularly, my work with Kuumba uncovers potential, unintended consequences of diversity initiatives that focus primarily on campus representation of racially minoritized students. It supports what prior studies have found—that even in this era, when the salience of race in everyday life is debated, black students on elite campuses may feel in but not of the institution and that black students may feel the need to educate their peers about race. As very visibly identifiable, underrepresented minorities, black students may uniquely feel this burden on predominantly white campuses.

In “Leaving the Space Better Than You Found It Through Song: Music, Diversity, and Mission in One Black Student Organization,” I also provide a portrait of how Sheldon K. X. Reid, director of the Kuumba Singers since 1998, enacts an approach to the organization’s racially diverse membership that moves beyond recognition of difference to address related power dynamics. Though Sheldon’s approach might seem difficult to enact, or even undesirable to some, the outcome is the creation of a community where black and nonblack students alike learn from diverse peers and are prepared to challenge social inequality. Through the metaphor of song, I show how Kuumba heralds the racial diversity of its members as both a remarkable testimony to the richness of black cultural traditions and a relentless test of deeply entrenched societal inequality. Sheldon’s and Kuumba’s examples prompt deeper consideration of how campus diversity might actually be engaged to bring about social change.

About the Author: Sherry L. Deckman is an assistant professor of social and cultural foundations of education at Ithaca College. She is the author of “Leaving the Space Better Than You Found It Through Song: Music, Diversity, and Mission in One Black Student Organization" (Harvard Educational Review, 2013).