Queer Students of Color and Diversity Mandates in Public Education
By Mary Marchan | September 14, 2022
In March 2022, Donald Trump told his supporters in South Carolina: “We have no choice, the fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down… their very lives to defend their country.” What ominous threat was he referencing? Diversity mandates in public education, or the specter of critical race theory and LGBTQ history in classrooms.
The Curriculum Wars
Anti-racist curriculum, often dubbed critical race theory, has become the subject of a witch hunt, targeting educators in a variety of ways. In 2021, at least 14 public school employees across the country were fired due to anti-critical race theory (CRT) campaigns. Cecelia Lewis, a DEI administrator, was literally chased out of one job by a mob of anti-CRT parents. Thirty-six states have introduced legislation to restrict education on race, gender, and sexuality– subjects deemed “divisive concepts” or promoting “conscious or unconscious bias.” CRT censorship measures have passed in 14 states and additional policies are being considered by school boards. Simultaneously, laws that aim to suppress LGBTQ+ history and identity in schools have been enacted in several states.
For years, progressive advocates have pushed for diversity mandates to foster a more inclusive curriculum. Some states are implementing diversity requirements for high school graduation or anti-discrimination and inclusivity standards for K-12 and college curriculum. California was an early adopter of diversity mandates with the passage of California’s 2011 FAIR Education Act, AB 101. The FAIR act required inclusion of people with disabilities and LGBT people in curriculum. The California legislature recently made ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation and in the California State University system. In Minnesota, the Department of Education is revising the state social studies standards for K-12 education. If approved, the revised standards would include a specific “ethnic studies” academic objective to include materials that provide more perspectives from people of color and explicitly address systems of oppression. Similar revisions are being considered in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Efforts to expand diversity in education aim to equip students to understand the complexities of U.S. history and contemporary U.S. society, and to ensure all students see their communities reflected in the curriculum.
Why Diversity Mandates Matter
Interventions to expand equity and diversity in education often take the form of mandated graduation requirements and state-issued guidelines for classroom instruction and learning materials. Unlike the portrayals of these mandates by anti-CRT opponents, many of these mandates do not mention “white supremacy” or “whiteness” at all. Rather, diversity mandates aim to incorporate the histories and contributions of people of color in curriculum, mitigate representational disparities in education, and foster cross-cultural understanding. Diversity mandates ensure that students get dedicated instruction about the history of marginalized communities in the U. S.
Over two decades of research confirms that ethnic studies and LGBTQ studies curricula have positive impacts on academic achievement and cultural competence for both students of color and white students.
Students of color who have the opportunity to engage in ethnic studies-integrated curricula have improved academic performance, are more self-empowered and independent, and graduate at higher rates. White students exposed to diverse racial and ethnic group perspectives in curricula in the classroom have more developed critical thinking skills and democratic competence. Likewise with LGBTQ representation: LGBTQ students attending high schools with more LGBTQ-inclusive curricula, along with supportive school policies and personnel, “report more positive school experiences, including lower victimization and absenteeism and higher academic achievement.”
Severing Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Diversity Mandates
Policy reform matters, but we must also attend to how policies are implemented. Without the right mix of professional development and implementation strategies for teachers and administrators, the success of these mandates will vary widely. A critical, and under analyzed aspect of these diversity mandates, is the fact that they were adopted separately.
Policies that address the problem of representational disparities in education tend to be additive: sequentially adding experiences of people of color, or LGBTQ people, or women, to current curricula.
The severing of race, sexuality, and gender in policy implies that these are mutually exclusive experiences and communities. For example, scholars have noted that ethnic studies course material often centers heterosexual experiences and queer studies course material centers white experiences.
Educators will be left with the challenge of figuring out how to teach race, gender, and sexuality. Will educators approach race, gender, and sexuality as separate, but parallel issues? Or will they be equipped to use an intersectional framework that elucidates how race, gender, and sexuality shape one another? An intersectional approach would help students to analyze how systems of discrimination overlap to shape lived experience, social inequalities, and histories of difference. For example, a high school history unit on women’s suffrage would not only include the contributions of Black suffragettes, but also investigate how debates about women’s suffrage were often based in specific ideas about white womanhood. History classes might cover the ways that the radical social movements of the 1960s– Civil Rights, gay liberation, feminist, socialist, and anti-war movements—were interwoven.
Without these curricular nuances, there is a risk that that these policies may unintentionally leave out those who exist at the intersections of race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality: queer students of color.
Without intersectional approaches, the structural disadvantages faced by queer students of color may be compounded. A 2019 survey of high school students by GLSEN found that LGBTQ students of color experienced higher victimization rates based on race and sexuality, while white LGBTQ students were less likely to feel unsafe in general. Queer students of color often experience multiple minority stress, which negatively affects their learning engagement and educational outcomes. To paraphrase Rudine Sims Bishop, queer students of color looking for a mirror have a hard time finding themselves in curriculum, and their peers are deprived a window into their experiences.
Diversity mandates need to go beyond naming identities to be included in curricula. Curricula should be drawn from organizations and programs dedicated to such work. For example, the Critical Race Theory Summer School, a program developed by Kimberle Crenshaw (the scholar who coined the term), host a course on Critical Race Theory and provides resources about intersectional education. Teacher training can be contracted to organizations like the Anti-oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA) or Justice Leaders Collaborative that provide intersectional social justice trainings to companies, organizations, and schools. Educational policies should articulate a vision for an intersectional curriculum and fund teacher training that emphasizes intersectionality, not just inclusion.
Mary Marchan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is a 2022 Gender Policy Report-Race, Indigeneity, Disability, Gender and Sexuality Studies Graduate Research Fellow through the Graduate Research Partnership Program of the College of Liberal Arts.
Photo credit: istock.com/JackF