Race-Conscious Admissions & Intercultural Competence

Jul 11, 2023

The recent Supreme Court decision declaring race-conscious admissions unlawful represents a significant set-back to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice (DEIBJ) efforts in U.S. higher education. Although I am still absorbing this news and reflecting on its potential ramifications, I feel this issue is too important to not address in this month’s post.

True North Intercultural was founded on the belief that bringing together individuals from diverse backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives is fundamental for deep, transformative learning. Furthermore, we recognize that systemic racism is still very alive in the United States (and elsewhere) and that intentional efforts are necessary to ensure access and equity in education.

What I am struck by and where I can perhaps contribute to the conversation—given my own background and perspective—is how this decision highlights the importance of intercultural competence in several ways. My hope in sharing these early reflections is to maybe spark ideas or inspire conversation about how educators and institutions can bring intercultural competence to this moment and consider ways it could support DEIBJ efforts.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that diversity relates to demographics; it’s about having a diverse mix of people. But having a diverse mix of people at a university or organization doesn’t ensure they all feel a sense of belonging or inclusion. It doesn’t ensure they feel valued and respected for who they are. For that to occur, intercultural competence is required. Intercultural competence is the capacity to communicate and behave appropriately, effectively, and authentically across differences, locally and globally. We can’t successfully address systemic inequities without developing and practicing intercultural competence.

Decision highlights intercultural mindsets of the Court.

As I read the news about the Supreme Court decision, I couldn’t help but wonder—and speculate—about the Justices’ intercultural mindsets and how these may have played out in the decision-making process.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I approach intercultural competence as a developmental process. It’s not something one has or doesn't have, but a process that involves increasing the complexity with which one experiences and can navigate cultural differences and similarities. In addition to being a process, intercultural competence is also something that must be actively practiced.

The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC) represents a spectrum of complexity in one’s capacity to experience and navigate cultural difference, from more monocultural mindsets of Denial and Polarization, through a transitionary mindset of Minimization, and intercultural mindsets of Acceptance and Adaptation. (You can find more information about the IDC and related assessment, the Intercultural Development Inventory—or IDI—here.)

The emphasis on fairness and colorblindness in the Supreme Court’s decision aligns with the Minimization mindset. When our primary means of navigating cultural differences and similarities is Minimization, we tend to focus on cultural commonality and universal values and principles. We’re starting to understand and appreciate cultural differences, but tend to organize the differences we experience into familiar cultural categories (e.g. “we may do things differently, but we all just want respect or love”). In Minimization, there’s a tendency to de-emphasize difference and over emphasize similarities. We may not recognize or fully appreciate how historic or systemic differences, such as those related to race, impact our own and others’ experiences.

While the ability to identify commonalities and recognize our shared humanity is an important developmental step along the intercultural development journey, over emphasizing similarities can mask important differences. We may focus on treating everyone equally, yet not realize that “everyone” only includes those whose experiences we can imagine (i.e. we center our own experience).

Developing along the IDC involves increasing self-awareness—recognizing and understanding our own cultural lenses and patterns. We begin to see when we may be centering our own experiences. As we come to understand and appreciate how others experience and make meaning of the world very differently—yet in equally valid, rich ways—we move toward Acceptance. Adaptation involves not only the capacity to shift perspective and empathize deeply, but also to adapt one’s behavior in order to effectively and appropriately bridge differences.

As I read the Supreme Court’s decision, I noticed a lot of language about treating everyone the same, fairness, and colorblindness. This idea of colorblindness minimizes differing experiences related to race. Of course, I don’t know any individual Justice’s mindset toward cultural difference, but the majority decision sounds a lot like the transitionary orientation of Minimization.

I am left wondering whether the outcome of this case may have been different if the group were operating from the intercultural mindset of Acceptance or Adaptation.

Figuring out next steps in higher education will require intercultural competence.

Moving forward, institutional leaders and admissions officers are going to need to have difficult conversations, revisit and perhaps revise goals, and creatively explore how to accomplish those goals effectively and appropriately in light of the recent ruling. Intercultural competence can help them navigate this complexity and work together to do so more effectively.

Although I don’t know where the saying originates, many of my fellow IDI Instructors and I like to say that Adaptation requires us to consider: What is my goal? What is my role? How can I do this without losing my soul?

What is my goal? Educators and institutions can begin by exploring and, if needed, re-imagining their specific admissions and/or DEIBJ goals. Sometimes acting in interculturally competent ways involves questioning whether the goal we’ve identified is really the goal. If admissions goals focus on demographics, one way to re-imagine that goal is to explore the why behind it; what it is you’re ultimately trying to accomplish?

What is my role? Acting in interculturally competent ways involves getting curious and asking questions to better understand differing perspectives and experiences of the various stakeholders. In order to bridge differences, we must first try to understand and empathize. This exploration could also lead back to further re-evaluation of goals.

How can I do this without losing my soul? How can an individual or group then accomplish the identified goal(s)—in a way that respects and takes into account differing perspectives and lived experiences—to come up with an adaptive solution they can feel good about?

Underscores the importance of developing intercultural competence through higher education.

This ruling emphasizes the need to double down not just on increasing diversity, but on helping students develop the intercultural competence to navigate, thrive, and build better communities in our pluralistic world.

As Daryl Smith writes in her book Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work, “Higher education must play a critical role if we are to achieve the promise of our democracy: developing a pluralistic society that works. Although few of us have lived or worked in such a setting, this is one of the foremost challenges of our day.”

I believe that while the Supreme Court’s decision represents a set-back, colleges and universities will figure out creative ways to continue to enroll diverse classes of students. But let’s not stop there. Let’s make sure we’re also working to help all students (along with faculty and staff) develop their intercultural competence, so that our campuses, communities, corporations, and courts are inclusive spaces filled with people who can navigate all types of difference effectively and appropriately. So that together we can create a more inclusive world and dismantle systemic injustice.

Photo credit: Brad Weaver, Unsplash

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