Lani Roberts

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Ethics of Diversity is a course I developed with the help of the Difference, Power and Discrimination faculty seminar. Actually, this is a philosophy of oppression class but I chose a more user friendly name. It is taught at the 280 level in order to reach students prior to their having completed their undergraduate education but still far enough into it so they have some university life experience. Many Oregon State students come from small towns or rural parts of the state and have never been exposed to people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Oregon is a very white, homogeneous state.

I am a moral philosopher and this class presupposes that ethics is, at bottom, concerned with the suffering we humans cause one another and the corresponding capacity of humans to recognize this suffering through the empathetic virtues of sympathy, compassion and caring. A moral approach to dominance and oppression is an effective one. Ethics of Diversity was first taught during winter term of 1994. It is currently in its seventh incarnation and to date approximately 350 students have taken the course. There is always a greater demand from students than can be satisfied. The class was filled the during the second day of undergraduate registration for this quarter.

Oregon State University has four cultural centers: the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center, the Asian Cultural Center, the Native American Longhouse and the Cesar Chavez Center. Prior to the first offering of Ethics of Diversity, I laid some groundwork by going to these cultural centers. I introduced myself, described the course I was offering and left flyers. This was important because to produce the kind of class I envisioned, namely one in which the students taught each other and me, it was essential there be a diversity of participants. In part because of this bridge building and in part because of the reputation I have earned teaching Ethics, each time I've taught the Ethics of Diversity, 40 - 50% of the students have been from target groups of discrimination including students from racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and students from the gay, lesbian, bisexual community. This is somewhat surprising because Oregon State University has a minority student population of 11-12%. This aspect of the enrollment seems to be self-perpetuating. Each term, I ask two students of color to be teaching assistants in order to provide an intermediary and to act as role models for the rest of the class. Except for the first class, the TAs are students who have completed the course.

Building a classroom community is essential because the material is so very volatile. I begin creating community by asking students the first day of the term about their hopes and fears for the course. I compile the written anonymous comments and report back to the class at the second meeting. A community is begun by virtue of the fact that most of the students share the same fears and hopes and realize that their concerns are not unique to them. I think this shows our shared vulnerability and this seems to open up discourse from the beginning. I believe this also helps students with the introspection which inevitably arises from confronting issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, et al.

Even though I grew up in a home where bigotry against anyone, including on the basis of class, was forbidden, and even though I have worked for years both practically and philosophically on issues surrounding oppression, I acknowledge that I too am a product of our white and male dominated society. I am also quite open about my own feelings - I talk about my own fears and inhibitions, for example how difficult it was initially for me to go to the Black Cultural Center and the Native American Longhouse. I add that this was scary for me because, like many people who have grown up in an essentially white environment, I initially feared rejection by students of color. I always acknowledge my own vulnerability to my students because I know they will be scared too, to confront the issues we deal with in Ethics of Diversity. An approach to teaching which includes an empathetic approach and acknowledges that our lives include our feelings is variously called "wise teaching" or "teaching the thinking heart." It is part of the pedagogy of teaching courses such as mine, unlearning racism courses, and others in this rapidly developing area. Although this is often called "feminist pedagogy," it is recognizable in the works of a variety of men philosophers as well.

Course Materials, Philosophic Content

Briefly, I use several use several philosophical models and theories of oppression which are accessible to undergraduates and other readings from moral philosophy. Course materials also come from sociology, history, literature, poetry, music, videos and public television. In addition to reading, writing, discussing and watching videos, we have individual speakers and panels from some of the minority communities on campus. Panel discussions include one comprised of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and faculty, as well as one representing the variety in the American Indian community.

Students write seven two to three page essays, one approximately every ten days, take part in structured small group discussions, take a midterm and participate in the community, on and/or off campus. I'll discuss each of these components in a little more detail as we go.

The model of institutional cruelty developed by Professor Philip Hallie in "From Cruelty to Goodness" is foundational to Ethics of Diversity. He introduces this model by using familiar cruelties everyone can understand - the Nazi exterminations of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals as well as slavery in the United States. I then stretch Hallie's model by asking the students to apply it to the genocide of indigenous persons here in the United States, for example, and to heterosexism, ableism, ageism and classism as well as racism and sexism. In my view, Hallie's greatest contribution to the teaching of ethics is his insistent emphasis on the priority of the victim's voice over the cognition of the wrong doer. By their very nature, oppressions which are built into the structure of our language and social institutions operate at the edge of our awareness where we may choose to ignore them, i.e., institutional cruelty is often in our peripheral vision. Unless we listen to the victim's voice, we are likely to give ourselves permission to remain oblivious to the harm being done. One very powerful passage from Hallie sticks with my students: "The sword does not feel the pain it inflicts. Do not ask it about suffering."1 It is Hallie's insight regarding the victim's authority and the common social practice of silencing those who suffer that governs the entire Ethics of Diversity course.

It is for this reason that I invite people who are members of oppressed groups to speak to the class about their experiences. And, to the greatest extent possible, I use materials written by those who are directly affected by what is being described. Because I seek to have students teach one another, it is one of my primary aims to do what I can to increase the students of color, the gays and lesbians, the disabled students in this course. For most, it is the very first time their experiences have been acknowledged and honored in a primary sense in the university setting. Thus, it provides a quality of education for middle class white students they are unlikely to get anywhere else.

Marilyn Frye's "bird cage model" is developed in a chapter called "Oppression" in her book, The Politics of Reality.2 Although developed to illustrate the oppression of women, it is a very flexible model and works well to introduce other varieties of oppression, their complexities, the idea and function of the double bind and the role "victim blaming" plays in the maintenance of oppression. I also use a short, two page excerpt from Martin Buber's I and Thou.3 Buber's way of looking at the problem of human interactions and relationships resonates with many students however, for some others, Buber remains a mystery. The I-Thou and I-It language gives us a shorthand way to talk about the seemingly common human tendency to select a single attribute of a person and have it stand for all of who she or he is. Additionally, Buber offers assistance to the students when we tackle the question of oppression's harm to the oppressor to which I will return. One thing that has worked as far as helping students to gain from Buber is that I recommend they read him as poetry. This has made a difference for some.

Josiah Royce's "moral insight" continues the positive picture of how we can understand and treat one another, that is, by realizing in the fullest sense that everyone is just as real as I am, with hopes, fears, joys and sorrows. As with the piece by Hallie, there is a wonderful quote from Royce which resonates with the students: "Take whatever thou knowest of desire and of striving, of burning love and of fierce hatred, realize as fully as though canst what that means, and then with clear certainty add: Such as that is for me, so is it for him, nothing less." 4

Finally, a chapter from Suzanne Pharr's book Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism, titled "The Common Elements of Oppression," offers a common language that rapidly facilitates dialogue about the issues involved in oppression. Few students have had a vocabulary that includes concepts of a defined norm or dominant paradigm, internalized oppression, horizontal hostility, assimilation and tokenism.5

As mentioned, course requirements include multiple two to three page papers on a variety of topics. Because the material is so difficult, sometimes philosophically and other times in terms of emotional impact, I grade these papers primarily on the students willingness to sincerely engage the question asked. The first paper of the term is an autobiography of sorts in which the student tells me of their race/culture/ethnicity, class, gender, ability/disability, and any other way they identify themselves or are identified by others. Importantly, they must try to recall how they first became aware of their membership in these groups or when they realized the significance of this group membership. Many students, mostly those who are white and middle class, have never been consciously aware of who they are in terms of social power dynamics. This speaks to the invisibility of privilege within the dominant paradigm. For this paper, I omit sexual orientation as a group identity because there is a great deal at stake in identifying oneself as gay or lesbian and it can be dangerous. Some students go ahead and self-identify during the course but then it is a conscious choice they have made individually. I am always grateful for their courage.

One of the most amazing things I have learned through this paper assignment is that we discover our membership in those groups formed by social power nearly universally in a negative and hurtful manner. This is true of both the privileged and oppressed. For example, young men often find out they are male because they were told not to act like a girl at a time they were crying or seeking caring. White students often find out that there is "something wrong" with people of color through remarks made by some adult. Many of these are very early childhood memories, from kindergarten and before. Many memories arise from the hypocrisy demonstrated by their parents or other adult family members revealed by the distinction between what they say and do, particularly as concerns race and class.

Other paper assignments include the problem of white privilege, whether or not oppression harms the oppressor and, for one assignment, students take an exam given by the state of Alabama to Negroes alone to qualify to vote, in effect until the Voting Rights Act of 1964. I will say only a few words about these assignments.

Students tackle the problem of privilege following a reading of Peggy McIntosh's excellent article, "White Privilege and Male Privilege."6 I ask students whether something they have never chosen, do not want and cannot get rid of is in fact accurately understood as a "privilege." When defined, as McIntosh does, as "unearned advantage," the issue becomes clearer. The more difficult question is for each student to say how one might give up unearned privilege and I ask them to address three privileges McIntosh exposes and specifically tell me how they can give them up. This is very difficult but also challenging and revealing.

The idea of the voter's registration exam came to me from an episode of "I'll Fly Away," an excellent series on public television from a few years back. With the help of a research assistant, I tried to locate a copy of an actual registration exam used in the south to convert a formal freedom, i.e., the right to vote, into a material barrier. Oddly enough, this was very difficult to do. We asked the election authorities in several southern states, the Southern Poverty Law Conference and the NAACP. Surprisingly, to my knowledge there is no collection of these exams anywhere and I fear they are being exorcised from our communal history and memory. We were finally able to obtain a copy of an exam used by the State of Alabama. It is so difficult that, even though I have had Constitutional Law and Jurisprudence at the University of Oregon Law School and have taught political philosophy, there is no way I could pass this exam, even when attempted jointly with one of my colleagues who also attended law school. I ask the students to take the exam without books and then, when they can go no further, research the answers using whatever sources they wish, including calling up lawyers, judges, graduate students in Political Science, etc. Still, these exams are returned to me uncompleted. Also included is an African-American mock SAT exam written by one of my associates at Oregon State University. The conclusions to be drawn from this exercise are clear and cannot be avoided.

Arguably the most difficult paper is one in which the student is asked to respond to the question: Does oppression harm the oppressor? In order to reflect on this, I suggest reference to Buber's claim that to make someone else an object, makes an object of oneself as well. For example, if one makes another an "it" on the basis of skin color, one becomes a racist, which is also an "it." Some students' ability to understand the force of this question lies in reading an excerpt from Frederick Douglass wherein he describes returning to visit Captain Auld, his former slave master, and seeing how his master was spiritually crippled as a human being by virtue of the role he had played, was required to play in Douglass' estimation, in the system of slavery. He observes that Captain Auld's mind must have become darkened, his heart hardened, his conscience seared and petrified or he would have refused the role of slave master.

The final assigned paper varies. Recently it has been concerned with the affirmative action debate. Oregon, like California, will have a "civil rights" initiative on the ballot soon, seeking to invalidate our state's affirmative action laws. Depending on the level of public debate, I may soon be assigning the last paper on the topic of immigration. I try to design the last paper of the term to gauge the results of the readings and discussions as well as help students formulate actual positions they may be called upon to use in the voting booth.

In addition to these papers, I have structured in-class group discussions on a variety of topics, some having specifically to do with the readings. For example, I ask them to apply the philosophical models of oppression to unlikely groups, or to examine the concept of double binds by application in ways not addressed by the philosopher. These small group discussions are rewarded on a pass/no pass basis. Active participation earns credit. The importance of the workshops is that it fosters dialogue among the differences brought by the students. The groups are originally formed by counting off however, I ask each group to take a census of itself and, if their group is not representative of the diversity in the classroom, to rearrange themselves and they do! The students' good will in this regard and others touches me deeply because they have taken seriously our joint project as I've described it. As a teacher, I cannot ask for more.

The most controversial and most rewarding requirement for the course is what I have called the Community Experience which occurs in the last four to six weeks of the quarter. Students are required to spend a minimum of 10 hours with a group of people significantly unlike them and about whom they have stereotypes and with whom they are uncomfortable. Initially, I wrote to approximately 114 groups both on and off campus representing each of the kinds of oppression we examine, explaining the purpose and format of the course and requesting their participation. The response was wholly positive. Some fine tuning has been needed but the project itself has been welcomed with open arms. Students make their own arrangements from a resource list provided and this experience alone is worthwhile. Rarely have white middle class students been in a position of asking for something from oppressed peoples, with the possibility they could say no. The students must be willing to volunteer their efforts with the group; I try to make sure they are not complicitous in what is sometimes called "drive by culture" or "cultural voyeurism." In addition to applying the course materials, the students keep a log book about their physical, psychological, and emotional experiences and write a summary. Their report must include a one-on-one interview. This project is begun nearly universally with tribulation and fear. However, this ends up being the most liked part of this course. Students consistently thank me for including it as a requirement, admitting they would have never crossed these boundaries unless coerced by a grade. It is a truly transformational experience. My insistence on this project stems directly from my commitment to the evaluation of theory through practice. I present this as an opportunity for the students themselves to evaluate the philosophical theories and models we read by first hand application to reality.


Needless to say, multifaceted challenges arise in this course. Students from historically oppressed groups have a difficult time refraining from creating a hierarchy of oppressions, i.e., my oppression is the worst and the only one that really counts. Fine tuning in terms of emphasis and rearrangement of reading material in addition to raising this issue directly seems to have encouraged a broader perspective.

There are also things my students wish for and ask from me that I cannot give or do. For example, they consistently wish the course was longer, both in terms of the individual class meetings and overall - longer than one term. I understand, I wish it was a full year course too but balancing the needs and obligations of the university makes this improbable. They also want a smaller class, usually suggesting 25 students. Standard enrollment is 55 students each term and so far, the course has been full. This winter, I did teach this topic in the Honors College to a class of 26 and I'm not convince it was a better class. I would like somewhat smaller classes but, the responsibilities and resources of a state university again preclude this possibility. I am sympathetic and they know this.

Finally, I benefit tremendously from teaching this course. I have learned much from my students and they have contributed greatly to my own research. I want to end by mentioning the questions I am pondering and will ask students when I teach a graduate level philosophy of oppression course. The first and perhaps most intractable issue goes by a variety of names and schemes. I call it the Pluribus-Unum problem, how do we get the one from the many? How do we grasp American identity while embracing pluralism?

I am also keenly interested in the inclination to produce hierarchy from difference. Are value judgments of inferior and superior somehow entailed in differences in the human community? If not, why is it so difficult for us to imagine otherwise?

I wonder whether there is one oppression or many discreet oppressions. Do we have a single, many headed monster in our communal closet or are there many monsters? I am moving away from thinking that there are multiple and discreet oppressions because the models and theories seem flexible and applicable to dominance based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, class, etc. Theoretically there seem to be very few distinctions.

I am also interested in how the casting of a group of people as the Other creates cultures which are richer than the dominating norm. By driving the Other into a separate and unequal realm, aspects of culture do develop which become a matter of envy for the oppressor. The co-optation of Native American spiritual practices may be an example. I certainly am not willing to say that this should be conceived of as a benefit of oppression, which even sounds amazing to say, but what I do know is that my white students do envy the strength, richness and apparent cohesiveness they see in the various student cultural centers around campus. Some students seem to recognize that by having excluded students, e.g., on a racial basis, they have in fact participated in a perverse way in creating a practice that is richer than they ones they know. I would like to end by noting that this seems like a perverse justice in a certain sense.


1. Philip Hallie, "From Cruelty to Goodness." Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, eds. Sommers and Sommers, 3d ed. (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993) 16.

2. Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983) 1-16.

3. Martin Buber, I and Thou, (New York:" Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958) 1-34.

4. Josiah Royce, "The Moral Insight," Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life eds. Sommers and Sommers, 3d ed. (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993) 57.

5. Suzanne Pharr, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (Inverness, CA: Chardon Press, 1988) 52-64.

6. Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies," ed. Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995) 76-87.

Copyright Lani Roberts

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Last updated: June 6, 1996