Psychological Essentialism: Diversity and the Religious Experience

Psychological Essentialism: Diversity and the Religious Experience

Sheri Young (John Carroll University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8772-1.ch004
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Abstract

This chapter uses a case study, and supporting literature, to explore the function of Psychological Essentialism (the process of giving meaning to perceived “sameness”) in explaining tensions that often arise as we struggle to improve our understanding of diversity and inclusion in higher education, as well as in other social settings. The case study presented throughout the chapter was constructed as an amalgamation of experiences diverse faculty typically report while working on campuses struggling with recruiting and retaining diverse groups. It provides examples of experiences that occur on a range from malicious intent to those that occur, seemingly, without consciousness. The larger question is whether religious and social institutions approach essentialism and stereotyping differently, when it occurs. Seemingly, they do not. The conclusion of this chapter offers solutions for dealing with the barriers faced when attempting to create campus climates that are nurturing and supportive rather than hostile and exclusionary.
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Introduction

That time

cool and clear,

cutting across the hot grit of the day.

The major Voice.

The adult Voice

forgoing Rolling River,

forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge

and other symptoms of an old despond.

Warning, in music-words

devout and large,

that we are each other’s

harvest:

we are each other’s

business:

we are each other’s

magnitude and bond.

–Gwendolyn Brooks

The following case study begins with a description of the career choices of a young, African American doctoral degree (Ph.D.) student, Cameron, who transitions from a graduate program into what he hopes will be a promising career on a campus that fits his need for academic work that takes place in an environment that also embraces social justice. He begins that career on a campus eager to move forward from the mistakes of its past in dealing with issues of multiculturalism. The question becomes whether the institution has moved forward in a way that is effective and inclusive, or whether it has moved forward in a manner that allows the campus to be viewed as progressive on paper, while regressive in reality. What is progressive in this context? It includes creating a campus environment in which multiculturalism is not determined by merely counting the number of diverse constituents on campus, but whether the environment is welcoming, equitable - offering equal opportunity, an environment that embraces diverse individuals and cultures as part of the continuum of the human experience.

Beyond the case study, the chapter shifts into a discussion of Psychological Essentialism, a concept that potentially explains why individuals are perceived as different and why those perceived differences are presumed to have meaning. Imagine two parents watching a group of children play together at a cub scout meeting. One parent is African American, the other is of European descent. The latter mentions how different the children are as they play. The former is confused by the statement. She sees children who are chasing one another through the gym, who are throwing toys around, and who are laughing together. How can these two parents be in the same room, watch the same experience, and give completely different interpretations of the event? It is the belief in Psychological Essentialism, which often suggests that not only are the differences real, but they are genetic and immutable. Even if the children are not objectively different, Psychological Essentialism almost assures that they will become different depending on who is conducting the observation.

Will such essentialist perceptions change as we reach adulthood and move into the work world? Unfortunately, that is unlikely the case. The literature suggests that psychological structures creating the negative experiences in childhood (separation and segregation based on perceived differences) often follow us into adolescence and adulthood, including into the adult workspace. Are institutions of higher learning, where concepts such as Psychological Essentialism are studied and deconstructed, immune from reductionist views of human experiences? The research discussed in the chapter would suggest that they are not. Whether institutions are public or private and religious in nature, the issues appear to be the same. Perceived differences may be viewed as real, as meaningful and, in the best and worst cases, as actionable.

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Background: Cameron – A Case Study

Cameron, a newly minted Ph.D., worked closely with his graduate advisor when applying for tenure track positions. They carefully crafted questions about salary, course loads, release time, grant submissions, and a host of other concerns typically negotiated when working at a large research institution. He was diligent in asking the right questions of potential employers and in critically evaluating all answers. Raised in a family of community organizers and civil rights activists, and understanding the data regarding underrepresented groups in higher education, he was prepared for the reality that in most of the institutions to which he applied he would most likely be one of a few faculty from underrepresented populations on his campus in the mid-1990s. While his goal was finding a position that would allow him to focus on his research interests and professional development, an equally important goal was being well placed in an institution that was committed to progressive movement forward; one that would do more than tolerate diversity. He wanted to work in an environment that embraced diversity. Ultimately, the institution that fit all of his criteria was a small liberal arts teaching institution.

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