22 Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Accessibility

Sonji Nicholas

What you’ll learn to do: explore diversity in college

three people speaking on a panel

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.

—Malcolm Forbes, entrepreneur, founder of Forbes magazine

In this section, you will learn how to describe factors in diversity and explain why diversity matters. You will be able to explain the positive effects of diversity in an educational setting and describe strategies for engaging in civil debates. You will learn to describe actions you can take to support diversity. In addition, you will be able to explain why accessibility matters on campus and in communities.

Factors of Diversity

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe factors in diversity

The multiple roles we play in life—student, sibling, employee, roommate, for example—are only a partial glimpse into our true identity. Right now, you may think, “I really don’t know what I want to be,” meaning you don’t know what you want to do for a living, but have you ever tried to define yourself in terms of the sum of your parts?

Social roles are those identities we assume in relationship to others. Our social roles tend to shift based on where we are and who we are with. Taking into account your social roles as well as your nationality, ethnicity, race, friends, gender, sexuality, beliefs, abilities, geography, etc., who are you?

Who Am I?

According to the American Psychological Association, personal identity is an individual’s sense of self defined by (a) a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person and (b) a range of affiliations (e.g., ethnicity) and social roles. Your identity is tied to the most dominant aspects of your background and personality. It determines the lens through which you see the world and the lens through which you receive information.

I am

Complete the following statement using no more than four words:

I am ______________________________.

It is difficult to narrow down our identity to just a few options. One way to complete the statement would be to use gender and geography markers. For example, “I am a male New Englander” or “I am an American woman.” Assuming they are true, no one can argue against those identities, but do those statements represent everything or at least most things that identify the speakers? Probably not.

Try finishing the statement again by using as many words as you wish.

I am ______________________________.

If you ended up with a long string of descriptors that would be hard for a new acquaintance to manage, don’t worry. Our identities are complex and reflect that we lead interesting and multifaceted lives.

To better understand identity, consider how social psychologists describe it. Social psychologists, those who study how social interactions take place, often categorize identity into four types: personal identity, role identity, social identity, and collective identity.

  • Personal identity captures what distinguishes one person from another based on life experiences. No two people, even identical twins, live the same life.
  • Role identity defines how we interact in certain situations. Our roles change from setting to setting, and so do our identities. At work, you may be a supervisor; in the classroom, you are a peer working collaboratively; at home, you may be the parent of a ten-year-old. In each setting, your bubbly personality may be the same, but how your coworkers, classmates, and family see you is different.
  • Social identity shapes our public lives by our awareness of how we relate to certain groups. For example, an individual might relate to or identify with Mexican Americans, Floridians, Methodists, and Buccaneers fans. These identities influence our interactions with others. Upon meeting someone, for example, we look for connections as to how we are the same or different. Our awareness of who we are makes us behave a certain way in relation to others. If you identify as a football fan, you may feel an affinity for someone else who also loves the game.
  • Collective identity refers to how groups form around a common cause or belief. For example, individuals may bond over similar political ideologies or social movements. Their identity is as much a physical formation as a shared understanding of the issues they believe in. For example, many people consider themselves part of the collective energy surrounding the #metoo movement. Others may identify as fans of a specific type of entertainment such as Trekkies.

Try It


What Is Diversity?

There are many interpretations of the word diversity. We’ll use the term to refer to the great variety of characteristics exhibited within human groups.  As a collective, humans share more similarities than differences. Those differences which may be cultural, biological, or personal in nature, are essential to a group’s character and serve to enrich the human experience. Diversity generally involves aspects of life that may significantly affect some people’s perceptions of others.

In the following video, students from Juniata College describe what diversity means to them and explain why it’s an important aspect of their college experience.

You can view the transcript for “Empowering Conversations: Diversity and Inclusion at Juniata College” here (opens in new window).

Surface Diversity and Deep Diversity

Surface diversity and deep diversity are categories of personal attributes—or differences in attributes—perceived to exist between people or groups of people.

Surface-level diversity refers to differences you can generally observe in others, like ethnicity, race, gender, age, culture, language, disability, etc. You can quickly and easily observe these features in a person. People often do just that, making subtle judgments at the same time, which can lead to bias or discrimination. For example, if a teacher believes that older students perform better than younger students, she may give slightly higher grades to the older students than the younger students. This bias is based on perception of the attribute of age, which is surface-level diversity.

Deep-level diversity, on the other hand, reflects differences that are less visible, like personality, attitude, beliefs, and values. These attributes are generally communicated verbally and non-verbally, so they are not easily noticeable or measurable. You may not detect deep-level diversity in a classmate, for example, until you get to know him or her, at which point you may find that you are either comfortable with these deeper character levels or perhaps not. But once you gain this deeper level of awareness, you may focus less on surface diversity. For example, at the beginning of a term, a classmate belonging to a minority ethnic group whose native language is not English (surface diversity) may be treated differently by fellow classmates in another ethnic group. But as the term gets under way, classmates begin discovering the person’s values and beliefs (deep-level diversity), which they find they are comfortable with. The surface-level attributes of language and perhaps skin color become more transparent as comfort is gained with deep-level attributes.

Intersections of Identity

“I am large. I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman

In his epic poem Song of Myself, Walt Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Whitman was asserting and defending his shifting sense of self and identity. Those lines importantly point out that our identities may evolve over time. What we do and believe today may not be the same tomorrow. Further, at any one moment, the identities we claim may seem at odds with each other. Shifting identities are a part of personal growth. While we are figuring out who we truly are and what we believe, our sense of self and the image that others have of us may be unclear or ambiguous.

Many people are uncomfortable with identities that do not fit squarely into one category. How do you respond when someone’s identity or social role is unclear? Such ambiguity may challenge your sense of certainty about the roles that we all play in relationship to one another. Racial, ethnic, and gender ambiguity, in particular, can challenge some people’s sense of social order and social identity.

When we force others to choose only one category of identity (race, ethnicity, or gender, for example) to make ourselves feel comfortable, we do a disservice to the person who identifies with more than one group. For instance, People with multiracial ancestry are often told that they are too much of one and not enough of another.

Malcolm Gladwell
Writer Malcolm Gladwell’s racial expression has impacted his treatment by others and his everyday experiences. (Credit: Kris Krug, Pop!Tech / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))

The actor Keanu Reeves has a complex background. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a White, English mother and a father with Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry, his childhood was spent in Hawaii, Australia, New York, and Toronto. Reeves considers himself Canadian and has publicly acknowledged influences from all aspects of his heritage. Would you feel comfortable telling Keanu Reeves how he must identify racially and ethnically?

An inappropriate question many people ask when they meet someone whom they cannot clearly identify by checking a specific identity box is, “What are you?” Would it surprise you if someone like Keanu Reeves shrugged and answered, “I’m just me”?

Malcom Gladwell, author of five New York Times best-sellers has spoken on his experience with identity as well. Gladwell, who has a Black, Jamaican mother and a White, Irish father often tells the story of how the perception of his hair has allowed him to straddle racial groups. As long as he kept his hair cut very short, his fair skin obscured his Black ancestry, and he was most often perceived as White. However, once he let his hair grow long into a curly Afro style, Gladwell says he began being pulled over for speeding tickets and stopped at airport check-ins. His racial expression carried serious consequences.


More and more, gender is also a diversity category that we increasingly understand to be less clearly defined. Some people identify themselves as gender fluid or nonbinary. Binary refers to the notion that gender is only one of two possibilities, male or female. Fluidity suggests that there is a range or continuum of expression. Gender fluidity acknowledges that a person may vacillate between male and female identity.

Asia Kate Dillon
Asia Kate Dillon is a nonbinary actor best known for their roles on Orange Is the New Black and Billions. (Credit: Billions Official Youtube Channel / Wikimedia Commons / Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC-BY 3.0))

Asia Kate Dillon is an American actor and the first nonbinary actor to perform in a major television show with their roles on Orange is the New Black and Billions. In an article about the actor, a reporter conducting the interview describes his struggle with trying to describe Dillon to the manager of the restaurant where the two planned to meet. The reporter and the manager struggle with describing someone who does not fit a pre-defined notion of gender identity. Imagine the situation: You’re meeting someone at a restaurant for the first time, and you need to describe the person to a manager. Typically, the person’s gender would be a part of the description, but what if the person cannot be described as a man or a woman?

Within any group, individuals obviously have a right to define themselves; however, collectively, a group’s self-determination is also important. The history of Black Americans demonstrates a progression of self-determined labels: Negro, Colored, Afro-American, Black, African American. Similarly, in the nonbinary community, self-described labels have evolved. Nouns such as genderqueer and pronouns such as hir, ze, and Mx. (instead of Miss, Mrs., or Mr.) have entered not only our informal lexicon, but the dictionary as well.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary includes a definition of “they” that denotes a nonbinary identity; that is, someone who fluidly moves between male and female identities.

Transgender men and women were assigned a gender identity at birth that does not fit their true identity. Even though our culture is increasingly giving space to non-heteronormative people to speak out and live openly, these people do so at a risk. Violence against gay, nonbinary, and transgender people occurs at more frequent rates than for other groups.

To make ourselves feel comfortable, we often want people to fall into specific categories so that our own social identity is clear. However, instead of asking someone to make us feel comfortable, we are challenged to accept the identity people choose for themselves. Cultural competency includes respectfully addressing individuals as they ask to be addressed.

Table Gender Pronoun Examples
Subjective Objective Possessive Reflexive Example
She Her Hers Herself

She is speaking.

I listened to her.

The backpack is hers.

He Him His Himself

He is speaking.

I listened to him.

The backpack is his.

They Them Theirs Themself

They are speaking.

I listened to them.

The backpack is theirs.

Ze Hir/Zir Hirs/Zirs Hirself/Zirself

Ze is speaking.

I listened to hir.

The backpack is zirs.

The website transstudent.org provides educational resources such as the above graphic for anyone seeking clarity on gender identity. Note that these are only examples of some gender pronouns, not a complete list.


The many layers of our multiple identities do not fit together like puzzle pieces with clear boundaries between one piece and another. Our identities overlap, creating a combined identity in which one aspect is inseparable from the next.

The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe how the experience of Black women was a unique combination of gender and race that could not be divided into two separate identities. In other words, this group could not be seen solely as women or solely as Black; where their identities overlapped is considered the intersection, or crossroads, where identities combine in specific and inseparable ways.

Factors of identity. The outer ring includes political belief, work experience, education, appearance, religion, income, language and communication skills, organizational role, and family. The inner ring includes national origin, race and ethnicity, mental and physical ability, sexual orientation, age, gender, and gender identity or expression.
Our identities are formed by dozens of factors, sometimes represented in intersection wheels. Consider the subset of identity elements represented here. Generally, the outer ring contains elements that may change relatively often while the inner circle elements are often considered more permanent. (There are certainly exceptions.) How does each element contribute to who you are and how might these categories change your self-defined identity?

Intersectionality and awareness of intersectionality can drive societal change, both in how people see themselves and how they interact with others. For example, the term Latinx is growing in use because it is seen by some as more inclusive than “Latino/Latina.”  However, other people argue against its use, thus reminding us to not assume that all people in a certain group or population feel the same way.

Intersectional Identity

Consider the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality; religion, ethnicity, and geography; military experience; age and socioeconomic status; and many other ways our identities overlap. Consider how these elements overlap in you.

Do you know people who talk easily about their various identities? How does it impact the way you interact with them?



Why Does Diversity Matter?

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain why diversity matters

Why Diversity Matters

The United States of America is viewed globally as a leader in democracy.  Our nation, young by most standards, continues to evolve to make freedoms and opportunities available to all. Where the benefits of citizenship have been imperfect, discord over issues related to civil rights and inclusion have often been at the center of the conflict.

To understand the importance of civility and civil engagement, it is necessary to acknowledge our country’s history. The United States was  born out of protest by colonists over unfair taxes under King George III. Ultimately, conflicts over democratic representation and legitimate government authority were at the foundation of the Revolutionary War. Over time, this same spirit of rebellion has earned many groups their civil liberties and equal access to all that our country has to offer.

A photo shows a crowd of people holding rainbow flags participating in the Annual Pride Parade.
(Credit: Carl Campbell / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))

The United States is often described as a “melting pot,” a rich mixture made up of people of many colors, religions, abilities, etc., working together to make one great big stew. That is the image generations of Americans grew up learning, and it is a true one. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and cultural influences from around the world have added to its strength.

Historically, however, not all contributions and voices have been acknowledged equally or adequately. Some groups have had to struggle to have their contributions valued, be treated fairly, and be allowed full participation in the civic life of the country. Entire populations have been oppressed as a part of the nation’s history; something important for Americans to confront and acknowledge. For example, in what is known as the Trail of Tears, the US government forcibly removed Native Americans from their homelands and made them walk to reservations; some had to travel more than 1,000 miles, and over 10,000 died on the journey. Further, in an act of forced assimilation, Native American children were taken from their families and placed in schools where they were forbidden to practice their cultural traditions as late as the 1970s. As a result, many Native American languages have been lost or are at risk of being lost.

The enslavement of Africans occurred in America for close to 250 years. Much of the wealth in the United States during that time came directly from the labor of these enslaved people; who themselves did not benefit financially. During World War II, Japanese Americans were placed into internment camps and were considered a security threat to the United States, which was at war with Japan.

For many years, all women and minority men were traditionally left out of public discourse and denied participation in government, industry, and even cultural institutions such as sports. For example, the United States Supreme Court was founded in 1789; however, the court’s first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, was not appointed until 1981, almost 200 years later. Jackie Robinson famously became the first African-American, major league baseball player in 1947 when he was hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers, although the major leagues were established in 1869, decades earlier. The absence of women and minorities was not an accident. Their exclusion was based on legal discrimination or unfair treatment.

These are all examples of mistreatment, inequality, and discrimination, and they didn’t end without incredible sacrifice and heroism. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the equal rights movement for women’s rights in the 1970s are examples of how public protests work to bring attention to discriminatory practices and to create change. Because racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and other forms of bias and intolerance still exist, civil engagement and protests continue, and policies must be constantly monitored. Many people still work to ensure the gains these communities have made in acquiring the rights of full citizenship are not lost.

Diversity has evolved to embrace experiences of people with various backgrounds, experiences, and points of view, beyond race and gender. This includes age, socioeconomic factors, ability, ethnicity, veteran status, geography, language, sexual orientation, religion, size, and other factors. At one time or another, each group has had to make petitions to the government for equal treatment under the law and appeals to society for respect. Safeguarding these groups’ hard-won rights and public regard maintains diversity and its two closely related factors, equity and inclusion.

Social Movements

Our rights and protections are often acquired through awareness, effort, and, sometimes, protest. Each one of the following groups has launched protests over discrimination or compromises to their civil rights. Choose three of the groups below and do a quick search on protests or efforts members of the group undertook to secure their rights. To expand your knowledge, choose some with which you are not familiar. Record the name, time frame, and outcomes of the protest or movements you researched.

The groups are as follows:

  • veterans
  • senior citizens
  • blind or visually impaired people
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • LGBTQ+ community
  • Hispanic/Latinos
  • people with intellectual disabilities
  • undocumented immigrants
  • little people
  • college students
  • Jewish Americans
  • farm workers
  • wheelchair users

The Role of Equity and Inclusion

Equity plays a major part in achieving fairness by calling for equal access to opportunity and success. For example, you may have seen interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing people in situations where a public official is making an important announcement.  Providing immediate translation into sign language means that there is no gap between what the public official is saying and when all people receive the information. Simultaneous sign language provides equity.[1] Similarly, many students with learning differences receive accommodations in the classroom. For example, a student with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might be given more time to complete tests or writing assignments. The extra time granted takes into account that students with ADHD process information differently and therefore, require additional time for completion in order to have an equal chance of success.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) is a federal government policy that addresses equity in the workplace, housing, and public places. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities have equal access to the same services as people without disabilities. For example, wheelchair lifts on public transportation, automatic doors, entrance ramps, and elevators are examples of accommodations that eliminate barriers of participation for people with certain disabilities.

Without the above accommodations, those with a disability may justly feel like second-class citizens because their needs were not anticipated. Further, they might have to use their own resources to gain equal access to services although their tax dollars contribute to providing that same access and service to other citizens.

Equity levels the playing field so that everyone’s needs are anticipated and everyone has an equal starting point. However, understanding equity is not enough.

Equality shows four people all riding the same size bicycle. The person in the wheelchair can't get on the bicycle, the tall person is hunched over on a bike that's too small, the average sized person is comfortable, and the child is stretching to reach the pedals. Equity shows those same four people all on appropriately sized bicycles, with the person in a wheelchair riding a bike meant to be propelled by hand movements rather than leg movements.
Equality is a meaningful goal, but it can leave people with unmet needs; equity is more empowering and fair. In the equality portion of the graphic, people of all sizes and a person who uses a wheelchair are all given the same bicycle, which is unusable for most. In the equity portion, each person gets a bicycle specifically designed for them, enabling them to successfully ride it. Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation / Custom License: “May be Produced with Attribution”)

When equity is properly considered, there is also inclusion. Inclusion means that there are a multiplicity of voices, skills, and interests represented in any given situation. In educational settings, this means that students of different skill levels study together and that course content includes perspectives from underrepresented groups.

Understanding Your Part in Diversity, Privilege, and Prejudice

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe actions you can take to support diversity

In higher education, other aspects of diversity include academic preparation and ability, learning differences, familiarity with technology, part-time status, language, and other factors students bring to the classroom.  Each instructor decides how to incorporate diverse perspectives into class discussions, maintains rules of civility, chooses inclusive materials to study or reference, receives training on giving accommodations to students who need them, and acknowledges his or her own implicit bias. If they are culturally competent, both students and instructors are juggling many concerns and priorities.

What actions can students take to support diversity?

Understand and Challenge Implicit Bias

One reason we fall prey to stereotypes is our own implicit bias. Jo Handelsman and Natasha Sakraney, who developed science and technology policy during the Obama administration, state:

“A lifetime of experience and cultural history shapes people and their judgments of others. Research demonstrates that most people hold unconscious, implicit assumptions that influence their judgments and perceptions of others. Implicit bias manifests in expectations or assumptions about physical or social characteristics dictated by stereotypes that are based on a person’s race, gender, age, or ethnicity. People who intend to be fair, and believe they are egalitarian, apply biases unintentionally. Some behaviors that result from implicit bias manifest in actions, and others are embodied in the absence of action; either can reduce the quality of the workforce and create an unfair and destructive environment.”[2]

The notion of bias being “implicit,” or unconsciously embedded in our thoughts and actions, is what makes this characteristic hard to recognize and evaluate. You may assume that you hold no racial bias, but messages from our upbringing, social groups, and media can feed us negative racial stereotypes no matter how carefully we select and consume information. Further, online environments have algorithms that reduce our exposure to diverse points of view. Psychologists generally agree that implicit bias affects the judgements we make about others.

When we think about where implicit biases come from, it is important to consider the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner (1977), who developed the Ecological Systems Theory to describe how individuals are impacted by their family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and societal factors like societal and cultural beliefs and mainstream media.[3] The graphic below shows Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory.Figure showing Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory with five concentric circles. The individual is at the center, their family, peers, school, church, and health services are in the next level (labeled microsystem), the mesosystem is next, the exosystem is next and includes industry, social services, neighbors, local politics, and mass media, and the macrosystem is last and includes attitudes and ideologies of the culture.

We are all products of our environment and our beliefs and attitudes are impacted by those closest to us as well as by others with whom we interact.  The different systems in an individual’s life interact with each other leading to fluidity in one’s beliefs, attitudes, and biases.  Outside forces contribute to shaping our attitudes, beliefs, and biases.

Harvard University’s Project Implicit website offers an interactive implicit association test that measures individual preference for characteristics such as weight, skin color, and gender. During the test, participants are asked to match a series of words and images with positive or negative associations. Test results can indicate the extent to which there is implicit bias in favor of or against a certain group.

The researchers who developed the test make clear that there are limitations to its validity and that for some, the results of the test can be unsettling. Completing a test like this might reveal unconscious feelings you were previously unaware you had, thus the test makers advise not taking the test if you feel unprepared to receive unexpected results. After taking any implicit bias tests, if you receive unexpected results, rather than feeling a sense of shame or guilt, you are encouraged to refer back to Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Framework to reflect on how implicit bias forms and action steps that may be taken to address biases identified.

Implicit Bias

Take the Project Implicit test and write a brief passage about your results.

Do you think the results accurately reflect your attitude toward the group you tested on? Can you point to any actions or thoughts you have about the group you tested on that are or are not reflected in the test results? Will you change any behaviors or try to think differently about the group you tested on based on your results? Why or why not?

Develop Cultural Competency

Cultural competency can be defined as the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities. It involves “(a) the cultivation of deep cultural self-awareness and understanding (i.e., how one’s own beliefs, values, perceptions, interpretations, judgments, and behaviors are influenced by one’s cultural community or communities) and (b) increased cultural other-understanding (i.e., comprehension of the different ways people from other cultural groups make sense of and respond to the presence of cultural differences).”[4]

Cultural competency requires you to be aware of your own cultural practices, values, and experiences, and to be able to read, interpret, and respond to those of others. Such awareness will help you successfully navigate the cultural differences you will encounter in diverse environments. Cultural competency is critical to working and building relationships with people from different cultures; it is so critical, in fact, that it is now one of the most highly desired skills in the modern workforce.[5]

In the following video, representatives from Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care elaborate on the concept of cultural competency:


Try It


Avoid Making Assumptions

By now you should be aware of the many ways diversity can be both observable and less apparent. Based on surface clues, we may be able to approximate someone’s age, weight, and perhaps their geographical origin, but even with those observable characteristics, we cannot be sure about how individuals define themselves. If we rely too heavily on assumptions, we may be buying into stereotypes, or generalizations.

Stereotyping robs people of their individual identities. Prejudging people without knowing them, better known as prejudice or bias, has consequences for both the person who is biased and the individual or group that is prejudged. In such a scenario, the intimacy of real human connections is lost. Individuals are objectified rather than considered for the complex, intersectional individuals we know each person to be.

Making Assumptions

Often, our assumptions and their impacts are not life-changing, but they can be damaging to others and limiting to our own understanding. Consider the following scenarios and answer the questions that follow.

Scenario 1:

During an in-class conversation about a new mission to explore Mars, two classmates offer opinions.

  • Student A says, “We should focus on this planet before we focus on others.”
  • Student B responds immediately with, “If we’re going to stop climate change, we’ll probably find the answer through science related to space travel.”

What assumption did student B make about student A’s point? What else, aside from climate change, could student A have been considering?

Scenario 2:

For an important group project, an instructor designates teams of six students and gives them time to set up their work schedule for the assignment. One group of students, most of whom don’t know each other well, agrees to meet two nights later. They initially propose to get together in the library, but at the last moment one member suggests an off-campus restaurant; several of the others agree right away and move on to other topics. The remaining two students look at each other uncomfortably. One interjects, suggesting they go back to the original idea of meeting in the library, but the others are already getting up to leave. It’s clear that two of the students are uncomfortable meeting at the restaurant.

What might be the reason that two of the students are not comfortable meeting over dinner? What assumptions did the others make?

Avoiding assumptions and being considerate will build better relationships and provide a more effective learning experience.

Be Mindful of Microaggressions

One danger of limiting our social interactions to people who are from our own social group is in being insensitive to people who are not like us. The term microaggression refers to acts of insensitivity that reveal our inherent biases, cultural incompetency, and hostility toward someone outside of our community. Those biases can be toward race, gender, nationality, or any other diversity variable. The individual on the receiving end of a microaggression is reminded of the barriers to complete acceptance and understanding in the relationship.

Consider the table below, which highlights common examples of microaggressions. In many cases, the person speaking these phrases may not mean to be offensive, however, appropriate terminology and other attitudes or acceptable descriptions change all the time. Before saying something, consider how a person could take the words differently than you meant them.

Category Microaggression Why It’s Offensive
Educational Status or Situation “You’re an athlete; you don’t need to study.” Stereotypes athletes and ignores their hard work
“You don’t get financial aid; you must be rich.” Even an assumption of privilege can be invalidating
“Did they have honors classes at your high school?” Implies that someone is less prepared or intelligent based on their geography
Race, Ethnicity, National Origin“ You speak so well for someone like you.” Implies that people of a certain race/ethnicity can’t speak well
“No, where are you really from?” Calling attention to someone’s national origin makes them feel separate
You must be good at _____.” Falsely connects identity to ability
“My people had it so much worse than yours did.” Makes assumptions and diminishes suffering/difficulty
“I’m not even going to try your name. It looks too difficult.” Dismisses a person’s culture and heritage
“It’s so much easier for Black people to get into college.” Assumes that merit is not the basis for achievement
Gender and Gender Identity “They’re so emotional.” Assumes a person cannot be emotional and rational
“I guess you can’t meet tonight because you have to take care of your son?” Assumes a parent (of any gender) cannot participate
“I don’t get all this pronoun stuff, so I’m just gonna call you what I call you.” Diminishes the importance of gender identity; indicates a lack of empathy
“I can’t even tell you used to be a woman.” Conflates identity with appearance, and assumes a person needs someone else’s validation
“You’re too good-looking to be so smart.” Connects outward appearance to ability
Sexual Orientation “I support you; just don’t throw it in my face.” Denies another person’s right to express their identity or point of view
“You seem so rugged for a gay guy.” Stereotypes all gay people as being “not rugged,” and could likely offend the recipient
“I might try being a lesbian.” May imply that sexual orientation is a choice
“I can’t even keep track of all these new categories.” Bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and other sexual orientations are just as valid and deserving of respect as more binary orientations
“You can’t just love whomever you want; pick one.”
Age “Are you going to need help with the software?” May stereotype an older person as lacking experience with the latest technology
“Young people have it so easy nowadays.” Makes a false comparison between age and experience
“Okay, boomer.” Dismisses an older generation as out of touch
Size “I bet no one messes with you.” Projects a tendency to be aggressive onto a person of large stature
“You are so cute and tiny.” Condescending to a person of small stature
“I wish I was thin and perfect like you.” Equates a person’s size with character
Ability (To a person using a wheelchair) “I wish I could sit down wherever I want.” Falsely assumes a wheelchair is a luxury; minimizes disabilities
“You don’t have to complete the whole test. Just do your best.” Assumes that a disability means limited intellectual potential
“I’m blind without my glasses.” Equating diminished capacity with a true disability

Some of these may be intended as compliments, but could have the unintended effect of diminishing or invalidating someone. (Credit: Modification of work by Derald Wing Sue[6].)

Form Your Own Opinions

You may not be decided on your opinions around diversity issues or fall easily into hard categories such as feminist, liberal, conservative, or religious. Ambiguity sometimes makes others feel uncomfortable.  Answer your detractors with “I’m just me” or tell them if you genuinely don’t know enough about an issue or are not ready to take a strong position.

Seek Resources and Projects That Contribute to Civility

A culturally responsive curriculum addresses cultural and ethnic differences of students. Even in classrooms full of minority students, the textbooks and topics may only reflect American cultural norms determined by the mainstream and tradition. Students may not relate to teaching that never makes reference to their socio-economic background, race, or their own way of thinking and expression. Educators widely believe that a culturally responsive curriculum, one that integrates relatable contexts for learning and reinforces cultural norms of the students receiving the information, makes a difference.

The K-12 classroom is different than the college classroom. Because of academic freedom, college instructors are not required to be culturally inclusive. (They are usually required to be respectful and civil, but there are different interpretations of those qualities.) Because American colleges are increasingly more sensitive to issues regarding diversity, faculty are compelled to be inclusive. Still, diversity is not always adequately addressed. In his TED Talk Can Art Amend History? the artist Titus Kaphar tells the story of the art history class that influenced him to become an artist and provides an example of this absence of diversity in the college classroom. Kaphar explains that his instructor led his class through important periods and artists throughout history, but failed to spend time on Black artists, something that Kaphar was anxiously awaiting. The instructor stated that there was just not enough time to cover it. While the professor probably did not intend to be noninclusive, her choice resulted in just that. Kaphar let his disappointment fuel his passion and mission to amend the representation of Black figures in historical paintings. His work brings to light Black figures that are too often overlooked.

See caption for appropriate alternative text.
In Twisted Tropes, Titus Kaphar reworks a painting to bring a Black figure to the forefront of an arrangement in which she had previously been marginalized. (Credit: smallcurio / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0))

Any student can respond to a lack of diversity in a curriculum as Titus Kaphar did. Where you find diversity missing, when possible, fill in the gaps with research papers and projects that broaden your exposure to diverse perspectives.

Directly Confront Prejudice

Academic freedom protects students and instructors from reprisal for having unpopular opinions, but prejudice is never correct, nor should it be tolerated. Do not confuse hate speech, such as sexist language, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and acts that reflect those points of view, with academic freedom. Yes, the classroom is a place to discuss these attitudes, but it is not a place to direct those sentiments toward fellow students, educators, or society in general.

Don’t Be a Bystander

No one knows when a racist or sexist attack is coming. The Barnard Center for Research on Women has created a video suggesting ways to be an ally to people victimized by intolerant behavior.

Privilege:  Recognize its Many Forms and Contexts

Privilege is a right or exemption from liability or duty granted as a special benefit or advantage. Oppression is the result of the “use of institutional privilege and power, wherein one person or group benefits at the expense of another,”[7] according to the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak Peck School of Social Work.

Just as everyone has implicit bias, everyone has a certain amount of privilege, too. For example, consider the privilege brought by being a certain height. If someone’s height is close to the average height, they likely have a privilege of convenience when it comes to many day-to-day activities. A person of average height does not need assistance reaching items on high store shelves and does not need adjustments to their car to reach the brake pedal. There’s nothing wrong with having this privilege, but recognizing it, especially when considering others who do not share it, can be eye-opening and empowering.

Wealthy people have privilege of not having to struggle economically. The wealthy can build retirement savings, can afford to live in the safest of neighborhoods, and can afford to pay out of pocket for their children’s private education. People with a college education and advanced degrees are privileged because a college degree allows for a better choice of employment and earning potential. Their privilege doesn’t erase the hard work and sacrifice necessary to earn those degrees, but the degrees often lead to advantages. And, yes, White people are privileged over racially minoritized groups. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of how he was treated when people assumed he was White as opposed to how people treated him when they assumed he was Black?

It is no one’s fault that they may have privilege in any given situation. In pursuit of civility, diversity, equity, and inclusion, the goal is to not exploit privilege but to share it. For example, when given an opportunity to hire a new employee or even pick someone for your study group, you can make an effort to be inclusive and not dismiss someone who has not had the same academic advantages as you. Perhaps you could mentor a student who might otherwise feel isolated. Sharing your privilege could also mean recognizing when diversity is absent, speaking out on issues others feel intimidated about supporting, and making donations to causes you find worthy.  With some effort, you can level the playing field without making yourself vulnerable to falling behind.

Examining Privilege

Think about a regular activity such as going to a class. In what ways are you privileged in that situation? How can you share your privilege with others?

Remain Vigilant

Civility is like liberty; it requires constant attention. We have to adjust diversity awareness, policies, and laws to accommodate the ever-changing needs of society. Without the vigilance of civil rights workers, society could have lapsed back into the Jim Crow era. Without activists such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Flo Kennedy remaining vigilant, women might not have made the gains they did in the 1970s. Constant attention is needed as society evolves and new generations emerge.

Experiencing Diversity on Campus

The following essay about experiences of diversity in college is by Fatima Rodriguez Johnson (State University of New York). Even though at first the writer felt like an ethnic outsider at college, she eventually grew in her understanding of the importance of diversity on campus and of speaking openly and honestly about this subject.


I chose to attend a small liberal arts college. The campus was predominately white and was nestled in a wealthy suburb among beautiful trees and landscaped lawns. My stepfather and I pulled into the parking lot and followed the path to my residence hall. The looks we received from most of the families made me feel like everyone knew we didn’t belong. But, he and I greeted all we encountered, smiling and saying, “Hello.” Once I was unpacked and settled into my residence hall, he gave me a hug and said, “Good luck.” I wasn’t sure if he meant good luck with classes or good luck with meeting new friends, but I heard a weight in his voice. He was worried. Had he and my mother prepared me for what was ahead?

With excitement, I greeted my roommate who I had already met through the summer Higher Educational Opportunity Program (HEOP). She and I were very happy to see each other. After decorating and organizing our room, we set out to meet new people. We went to every room introducing ourselves. We were pretty sure no one would forget us; it would be hard to miss the only Black and Latina girls whose room was next to the pay phone (yes, in my day each floor shared one pay phone).

Everyone on our floor was nice and we often hung out in each other’s rooms. And like some of you, we answered some of those annoying questions:

  • Why does your perm make your hair straight when ours makes our hair curly?
  • How did your hair grow so long (whenever we had weave braids)?
  • Why don’t you wash your hair everyday (the most intriguing question of all)?

We were also asked questions that made us angry:

  • Did you grow up with your father?
  • Aren’t you scared to take public transportation?
  • Have you ever seen anyone get shot (because we both lived in the inner city)?

It was those questions that, depending on the day and what kind of mood we were in, made a fellow student either walk away with a better understanding of who we were as Black and Latina women or made a fellow student walk away red and confused. I guess that’s why my stepfather said, “Good luck.” He knew that I was living in a community where I would stand out—where I would have to explain who I was. Some days I was really good at answering those questions and some days I was not. I learned the questions were not the problem; it was not asking that was troubling.

My roommate and I put forth a lot of effort to fit in with the community—we spent time hanging out with our peers, we ate together almost every evening in the dining hall, and we participated in student organizations. We were invited to join the German Club, and were the only students of color there. In doing all these things we made ourselves approachable. Our peers became comfortable around us and trusted us.

Although my peers and I all had similar college stresses (tests, papers, projects, etc.) my roommate and I also had become a student resource for diversity. Not because we wanted to, but because we had too. There were very few students of color on campus, and I think students really wanted to learn about people different from themselves. It was a responsibility that we had accepted. The director of HEOP would often remind us that for many students, college was the first opportunity they had to ask these types of questions. He said we would learn to discern when people were really interested in learning about our differences or insulting us. If someone was interested in insulting us, there was no need to respond at all.

Although I transferred to another college at the end of my sophomore year, during those two years I learned a great deal about having honest conversations. Taking part in honest conversations challenged my notions of the world and how I viewed people from all walks of life (race, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.). Those late nights studying or walks to the student center were when many of us listened to each other’s stories.

My advice is to take time to examine your attitudes and perceptions of people different from yourself, put yourself in situations that will challenge your assumptions, and lastly, when you make a mistake do not get discouraged. Keep trying. It’s easy to stay where we are comfortable. College is such a wonderful experience. Take it all in, and I am sure you will enjoy it!

—Fatima Rodriguez Johnson, Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom


Accessibility on Campus

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain why accessibility matters on campus and in communities

There are many different ways in which humans are diverse, including physical and mental ability, too. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has the same physical and mental ability as you. Buildings, streets, and society are generally built around the assumption that all people have the same abilities, be that the ability to walk up stairs, hear the audio on a video, or hold information in their working memory while trying to solve mental math. The truth is that differences in ability are all around us, and we can’t assume that everyone in the classroom can do the same things.

You Can’t Always Tell

Many people assume that disability is easily visible. For example, you might picture a person in a wheelchair when you think of a mobile disability, or a person with a seeing eye dog when you think about blindness. However, many people’s disabilities are not readily obvious to an outside observer. Let’s consider an example. Imagine you’re riding your bicycle down the street on your way to campus in the morning. You might call out to a cyclist up ahead, “on your left!”, to let them know you’re about to pass them, and that you need them to move over. When they don’t move over to give you room, your might just assume they are rude and ignoring you. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know by seeing them that they are deaf. Maybe they simply could not hear you call out, and instead they use a rearview mirror to see cars and other cyclists approaching from behind them.

Link to Learning: Guess My Disability

Check out this video “Guess My Disability” by The Cut to see more people with disabilities talk about their experiences.

Types of Disability

According to WebAIM, a leader in web accessibility, one in four adults in the United States has a disability.[8] Common physical disabilities include motor disabilities, visual disabilities, auditory disabilities, and cognitive disabilities. Some people are born with their disabilities, and some people develop them over time due to aging, disease, or even accidents. Here is a short list of disabilities and neurodivergence that you, other students in your classroom, or other people in your community may be living with:

  • partial or full blindness
  • partial or full deafness
  • inability to use body parts like legs, hands, or arms
  • attention-deficit hyperactive disorder or attention-deficit disorder
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • major depressive disorder

Disability spans a wide range of experiences, and every person’s needs and preferences will be different. Keeping this diversity in mind will go a long ways toward helping you understand yourself and the people in your community at school and elsewhere.

Link to Learning: Failing at Normal

Check out this TED Talk by Jessica McCabe on the challenges she’s faced with ADHD.

Accessibility on College Campuses

The idea of accessibility is an important force of change on college campuses today. Accessibility is about making education accessible to all, and and it’s particularly focused on providing educational support to a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. According to the American with Disabilities Act, you can be considered disabled if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, learning, and others.
  • You must have a history of such impairment.
  • Others perceive that you have such impairment.

If you meet one of these criteria, you have special legal rights to certain accommodations on your campus. These accommodations may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • academic accommodations, like alternate format for print materials; classroom captioning; arranging for priority registration; reducing a course load; substituting one course for another; providing note takers; recording devices; sign language interpreters; a TTY in your dorm room; and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.
  • exam accommodations, like extended time on exams
  • financial support and assistance
  • priority access to housing
  • transportation and access, like wheelchair-accessible community shuttles

For more information on acessing services on campus, students should contact the FSW Office of ADAptive Services.

Assistive Technology and Web Accessibility

Assistive technologies and web-accessibility accommodations are critical in today’s technology-driven economy and society. The following are some examples of assistive technologies:

  • speech-recognition and other assistive software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil, Zoom Text, CCTV Magnifier, and Inspiration Software
  • computer input devices, like keyboards, electronic pointing devices, sip-and-puff systems, wands and sticks, joysticks, trackballs, and touch screens
  • other web-accessibility aids, like screen readers, screen enlargers, and screen magnifiers, speech recognition or voice recognition programs, and text-to-speech (TTS) or speech synthesizers

Students in the following video share some of their experiences with web accessibility.

You can view the transcript for “Experiences of Students with Disabilities” here (opens in new window).

For more information about web accessibility, visit http://webaim.org/.

Changing the Way We Talk about Disability

Check out this video by Amy Oulton on Changing the Way We Discuss Disabilities.

Try It



accessibility: the goal of making education accessible to all, and providing effective support to students, faculty, and staff with disabilities

civility: the practice of working through disagreements while maintaining respect for others’ points of view

cultural competency: the ability to recognize and adapt to cultural differences and similarities

digital civility: the practice of leading with empathy, kindness, and mutual respect in all online interactions

diversity: the great variety of human characteristics, especially those that may significantly affect some people’s perceptions of others

equity: the name for policies that level the playing field so that everyone’s needs are anticipated and everyone has an equal starting point

implicit bias: internalized assumptions that influence one’s judgments and perceptions of others

inclusion: the idea that there should be a multiplicity of voices, skills, and interests represented in any given situation

intersectionality: the idea that identities, for example “Black” and “woman,” combine in specific and inseparable ways

logical fallacy: a commonplace error in one’s thinking or rationale that undermines and discredits an argument

microagressions: acts of insensitivity that reveal our inherent biases, cultural incompetency, and hostility toward someone outside of our community

privilege: a right or exemption from liability or duty granted as a special benefit or advantage

social roles: those identities we assume in relationship to others


  1. "Community and Culture – Frequently Asked Questions." National Association of the Deaf, https://www.nad.org/resources/american-sign-language/community-and-culture-frequently-asked-questions/.
  2. Handlesman, Jo and Sakraney, Natasha. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/bias_9-14-15_final.pdf.
  3. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American psychologist, 32(7), 513.
  4. Bennett, J. M. "Intercultural Competence Development." The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intercultural Competence. SAGE Publications, Inc.: 2015.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  7. Golbach, Jeremy. “A Guide to Discussion Identity, Power, and Priveledge.” University of Southern California, https://msw.usc.edu/mswusc-blog/diversity-workshop-guide-to-discussing-identity-power-and-privilege/.
  8. https://webaim.org/intro/


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Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Accessibility Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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