Double Jeopardy: Being African-American and “Doing Diversity” in Independent Schools

by Diane M. Hall & Howard C. Stevenson - 2007

The experience and responsibility of addressing diversity issues in independent schools is the focus of this article. Open-ended interviews were conducted with diversity coordinators in independent schools in a large urban area in the Northeast. Coordinators were asked about their roles within the schools and about their participation in a study on race within the school. Five major themes emerged around the issue of racial tokenism that described the tensions that diversity coordinators face. They included the marginalized isolation of “being the only one,” school system resistance toward defining diversity, marginalized perception of Blackness, intense and suppressed need for role support, and racial cognitive dissonance. Results indicate that diversity coordinators are often isolated within their schools and may face increased vulnerability due to their tokenized status and roles as diversity coordinators. Recommendations for addressing these issues in independent schools are proposed.


The experience and responsibility of addressing diversity issues in independent schools is no easy task, and it is not surprising that little has been written on this topic. Several studies have investigated what teachers of color experience (Kane & Orsini, 2002) and what students and parents experience (Arrington, Hall, & Stevenson, 2003; Datnow & Cooper, 1997; Slaughter & Johnson, 1988), but the work of addressing diversity issues has been virtually ignored.


Many believe that access to a good education is a means of gaining power and privilege. Independent schools are defined as private, non-parochial schools and include the most prestigious and privileged of private schools. There are 1,500 independent schools in the United States. In 1996, the Board of Directors of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) approved guidelines entitled “Principles of Good Practice for Equity and Justice in Schools.”  These principles were developed to “ensure the inclusion of a diversity of individuals and groups in the many aspects of school life” (NAIS, 1996). The principles address the importance of respecting all members of the school community and the need for establishing a “bias-free environment by addressing issues of equity and justice” (NAIS, 1996).

In keeping with these principles, mission statements for many independent schools include the goal of becoming a diverse community. What is less clear is how this goal can be achieved. Conversations about race can be difficult since Whites need to acknowledge on some level the privilege they enjoy (Tatum, 1997). In addition, the assumption is often made that everyone is talking about the same thing, and identified goals are often vague (e.g., “we want to be a diverse community”). How does a school move beyond what is essentially rhetoric about change and truly create change, assuming that true change is desired?  The answers probably depend on who is asked.

To meet this goal, many independent schools have a staff member serve formally or informally as a “diversity coordinator.” In most schools, the role of diversity coordinator is conceptualized as, at most, a half-time role. In many cases, the role is one of many roles the diversity coordinator has within the school. Anecdotally, a diversity coordinator is usually a person of color who is young, female, and new to the school (B. Workman, personal communication, March 22, 1999). This person, and it usually is only one person functioning in this role, is often responsible for “looking after the multicultural health of the school” (B. Workman, personal communication). Many diversity coordinators are not clear on how to proceed with their role, and job descriptions often echo the vague goals of mission statements.


One way of conceptualizing the experiences of Blacks in predominantly White work settings is through tokenism (Kanter, 1977; Laws, 1975). Laws stated that, “Tokenism is likely to be found wherever a dominant group is under pressure to share privilege, power, or other desirable commodities with a group which is excluded (p. 51).” Furthermore, tokenism is defined as a form of mobility between groups (for the token). This mobility, however, is severely restricted (Laws, 1975). In most independent schools, Blacks have tokenized status. When a school (meaning the board or the headmaster) wants to “be more diverse,” what does this mean for a diversity coordinator?  What type of conflict is created for the diversity coordinator, who is a token, and whose efforts may be seen as intrusive and threatening to the school culture?

According to Kanter (1977), tokens are often “treated as representatives of their category, as symbols rather than individuals” (p. 208). Although Kanter’s work focused on female tokens, research in this area has been extended to other tokens (e.g., Yoder, Aniakudo, & Berendsen, 1996). Three perceptual phenomena associated with tokens have been identified and are described in Table 1.

Table 1: Kanter’s (1977) Perceptual Phenomena Associated with Tokenism

Perceptual Phenomena


Result on Tokens


Tokens receive a disproportionate amount of attention, based on social group characteristics (e.g., sex or race)

Performance pressures –choose overachievement or attempt to limit visibility


(also called contrast)

Differences between tokens and dominants are exaggerated

Boundary heightening, which can lead to social isolation–choose acceptance of isolation or attempt to become “insider”


Token’s attributes are distorted to fit preconceived generalizations or stereotypes about his or her social group

Role entrapment, also called role encapsulation, which leads to the assignment of stereotypical roles within the organization–accept stereotyped role and resulting sense of self-distortion

Each phenomenon impacts members of the system, whether token or dominant, although the impact on tokens may be more visible. These phenomena result in a race-related stressful work environment for tokens (Cose, 1993). See Table 2 for an overview of Kanter’s perceptual phenomena and race-related stressors (Cose, 1993).

Table 2: Race-related Stressors Faced by African-Americans in the Workplace (adapted from Cose, 1993 and Kanter, 1977)

Locus of Response

Kanter’s Perceptual Phenomenon

Cose’s Race-related Stressor

Description of Impact on Individual

Dominant Group


Inability to fit in

Often cited as a reason to support decisions not to hire a minority candidate

Dominant Group


Exclusion from the club

Includes real and symbolic clubs to which African-Americans cannot find acceptance

Dominant Group


Low expectations

Initial low expectations from others, which may be internalized

Token’s Response


Shattered hopes

Finding that more opportunities and choice assignments are given to White employees

Dominant Group

Polarization and assimilation

Faint praise

Blacks are singled out as being exceptional, which is based on the assumption that overall Blacks are inferior (often voiced as “too bad there aren’t other Blacks like you”)

Locus of Response

Kanter’s Perceptual Phenomenon

Cose’s Race-related Stressor

Description of Impact on Individual

Dominant Group

Polarization and assimilation

Presumption of failure

Often cited as a reason why a Black candidate can’t be considered the first person in a job (“We just can’t afford to have a Black person fail in such a visible position”)

Token’s Response


Coping fatigue

Comes from having to work harder and having to deal with racist comments, as well as the other “dozen demons”

Dominant Group



Agencies and corporations come to identify certain jobs as “Black jobs”

Token’s Response

Visibility and assimilation

Identity troubles

African-Americans have to safeguard how they are perceived in the workplace (e.g., speaking out against racism can lead to being labeled “troublemaker”)

Locus of Response

Kanter’s Perceptual Phenomenon

Cose’s Race-related Stressor

Description of Impact on Individual

Token’s Response

Visibility and assimilation

Self-censorship and silence

Not being or feeling able to speak out about sensitive racial issues (e.g., Affirmative Action, institutional racism)

Dominant Group



Such as when corporations claim they are “color-blind” and not biased against minorities, when evidence suggests otherwise

Dominant Group


Guilt by association

Being treated badly just for being Black (e.g., racial profiling by police or security, being mistaken for another Black person in the work setting)

One criticism of Kanter’s (1977) discussion and analysis of tokenism is that it ignored issues of power, prestige, and privilege that are part of the larger culture (Yoder, 1991; Zimmer, 1988). Since Kanter (1977) defined tokenism as a result of numerical scarcity, she concluded that interventions aimed at improving work conditions for tokens should involve increasing the number of minorities in work settings. In addition, she concluded that the experience of tokenism would be similar for anyone who is a statistical minority in a group (i.e., males in predominantly female work settings or Whites in predominantly Black work settings.) Zimmer (1988) argued that simply focusing on numbers ignores the sexist (and racist) context of many work settings. In addition, it has been found that privileged status can reduce or preclude the effects of tokenism, thereby refuting Kanter’s claim that tokenism results simply from numerical scarcity of certain groups (Yoder & Sinnett, 1985). In summary, it appears that tokenism effects are seen for someone lacking privileged status, in jobs in which they are numerically scarce, and in jobs that have traditionally been defined as the purview of the dominant or privileged group (Yoder, 1991).


In order to be successful within the system controlled by the dominant group, tokens must abide by the “rules” of that group. Furthermore, the role of tokens must be accepted in order for them to experience success within the group. Often, the token experiences a discrepancy between self-image and ascribed social identity. The token becomes a “double deviant”—first by being a minority and second by aspiring to the goals and privileges of the dominant group. As a consequence, tokens do not become assimilated into the dominant group, but become permanently marginalized (Laws, 1975). Accordingly, tokenized status has been correlated with job dissatisfaction (Niemann & Dovidio, 1998) and feelings of anxiety and depression (Jackson, Thoits, & Taylor, 1995).

Laws (1975) described several interrelated dimensions of the interaction between tokens and dominants. The first dimension involves agreement that the token is exceptional, as compared to others of her/his social grouping. The second dimension is individualism, or the belief that outcomes are the result of individual efforts. Social group membership is not seen as relevant to achievement or failure. In essence, it is assumed that there is a level playing field. The third dimension is belief in meritocracy. Since membership in the work setting is achieved by individual effort and excellence is rewarded, the group is able to justify its exclusivity. Since talent and hard work are all that are needed for success, there is no need for programs such as Affirmative Action (Laws, 1975). These interactions serve to maintain the dominant-defined status quo of the setting and reaffirm privilege.


The challenge of asserting one’s cultural uniqueness and a school’s diversity mission may often be more than one person can handle. “Doing diversity” in independent schools can weigh heavily on one’s psychological and emotional health, particularly for someone with tokenized status. In addition to the disillusionment reactions, Cose (1993) found that middle-class status and enjoyment of some success has actually placed a constraint on the emotionality of African-Americans. Many African-Americans hesitate to express or even acknowledge that they are angry about their situation. “To acknowledge their race-related anger or frustration, they feared, would be to alienate (and perhaps revoke reprisals from) those Whites whose goodwill was essential to their well-being” (p. 31). In addition, he found that many middle-class Blacks have the sense of living in two worlds, without fully belonging to either, and experiencing discrimination that can lead to a sense of “permanent vulnerability” of one’s status, in which race undermines status. When there were others of their racial group in the work environment, professionals described less need to search for hidden meaning in casual comments and less pressure to act as an “ambassador for the race.” Being the “only one” can lead to a sense of uneasiness and loneliness.

Cose (1993) discussed issues that Blacks must deal with in the workplace that are solely related to race. In addition to the stress of trying to be successful at work, African-Americans face race-related stressors on the job. Cose calls these stressors the “dozen demons” (p. 56). Tables 1 and 2 describe these various race-related stressors.


The role of diversity coordinator is a perfect example of formalized role entrapment (Kanter, 1977) or pigeonholing (Cose, 1993). What happens when an African-American diversity coordinator is a token, who thereby has very little decision-making power within the system, and is made responsible for the “multicultural health” of the school?  It would seem that this responsibility leads to an additional level of risk and vulnerability, beyond that of tokenism. The role of diversity coordinator increases visibility by the very nature of the job and makes it difficult to be a “successful” token since one would no longer be perceived as being an exception to their social group. Therefore, it is believed that tokenized status and being responsible for diversity initiatives within the school context lead to increased marginalization and additional stress for the diversity coordinator.

The current study seeks to examine how these and other politics of race play themselves out in the context of independent schools for administrators whose primary role, ostensibly, is to raise the consciousness of the school to appreciate the cultural diversity of the world and its student body.


The present study is part of a larger examination of race within independent schools in a large urban metropolis. Each school represented has some sort of religious affiliation, either with Quakerism or the Episcopal church. All of the schools are co-educational day schools. The larger project is a longitudinal study of the challenges and successes of Black students in these schools. As a part of the project, students, teachers, parents, and alumni are invited to participate in interviews and in the completion of various measures. The study began in 1995, at the request of the schools.


Five diversity coordinators from four out of the five schools agreed to participate in an interview. In these schools, African-American student enrollment ranged from 5–26 percent of the total student body. African-American teachers represented 4–10 percent of the faculty. Each school had only one or two African-American administrators at the time of the interviews.

All the participants were African-American and parents of school-age or older children. Each participant selected an independent school for their child’s education. Four of the five diversity coordinators were women. Four of the participants were associated with only one school, while the fifth had contact with several schools and was involved in other administrative responsibilities as well as diversity initiatives with students. None of the participants had the function of diversity coordinator as their sole responsibility within the school. In fact, at the time of the interviews, none of the diversity coordinator participants had the title “Diversity Coordinator.” All of the participants had been working in an independent school from 7 to 20 years. Interestingly, none of the participants resembled the “anecdotal profile” described previously. The diversity coordinator who did not participate came closest to resembling the “profile.”


Interview questions were developed to learn more about each participant’s role within the school, role with the research study, views on the research process and expected outcome, and impact of participation in the larger study. The principal investigator of the larger study (second author) reviewed the questions prior to the interviews. All interviews were conducted by the first author, a White female doctoral student, over an eight-month period. At the time of the interviews, participants were known to the interviewer for two to three years, through work on the larger study. All interviews were audiotaped.


Interviews were transcribed by a service and then checked for accuracy by the first author. A coding scheme was created, which reflected themes emerging from the interviews (Boyatzis, 1998), as well as themes identified in the feminist and Black psychology literature. In addition, many themes corresponded to six of Cose’s (1993) “dozen demons” and to Kanter’s (1977) perceptual phenomena involving tokens. Interviews were coded, and codes were analyzed for relationships. Coded interviews were reviewed by the second author for reliability. Table 3 lists the major coding themes and the relevant corresponding literature.

Table 3: Coding Themes and Relevant Literature

Coding Theme

Relevant Literature

Being the Only One/Marginalization

Cose (1993): exclusion from the club, inability to fit in

Kanter (1977): feelings associated with token  status

Perception Within the School

Cose (1993): pigeonholing

Helms (1990)

Kanter (1977): visibility and polarization

Systemic Struggles and Resistance

Helms (1990)

Support From Others

Nobles (1991)

Surrey (1991)

Racial Cognitive Dissonance

Cose (1993): identity troubles, pigeonholing,

presumption of failure, self-censorship and silence


The coordinators in these schools are tokenized in that they are functioning in skewed groups (numerical scarcity of African-Americans) and have non-privileged status (African-American in a predominantly White setting). In addition, two of the participants had additional administrative roles that had typically been assigned to White faculty members. Analysis of interview transcripts yielded major themes related to racial tokenism in a privileged, traditionally White setting. Themes emerged related to participants’ tokenized roles in the school (being the only one: marginalized isolation) and how others perceived them within the school (marginalized perception of Blackness within the school). When participants were not willing to accept their role as token, with the accompanying agreement not to change the dominant culture (Laws, 1975), themes emerged related to system responses (system resistance toward defining diversity). Finally, themes emerged related to coping strategies used by individuals in dealing with their tokenized status (intense but suppressed need for role support from others and racial cognitive dissonance).


Many of the diversity coordinators discussed their isolation within their schools, either by virtue of being the only African-American faculty member/administrator or by the nature of their job, which unofficially included participation in the larger research project. Cose (1993) discusses the unease that goes along with being the “only one,” which often leads to searching for hidden meanings behind comments or having to deal with the “dozen demons,” mentioned previously. In addition, by being the “only one,” one can become vulnerable within the school. This is particularly true when there is resistance to change related to multiculturalism and diversity. In essence, participants discussed the difficulty of being tokenized, while also being the person responsible for the “multicultural health” of the institution.

One participant discussed difficulties in getting others in the school involved in the larger research project:

The diversity coordinators have become marginalized about the project. It’s no longer the school is embarking on this project. It’s now, you know, “[names herself] is involved in this project and how is this gonna . . . what is she gonna do that’s gonna make it work out?  Or, you know, how, how is she . . . how is her involvement going to bring back to the school the information that we need?”  So it’s no longer the school (pause). Which is kind of tough, because as you know, you can’t do it by yourself.

In this instance, the coordinator is talking about the institution abdicating responsibility for the research project and for diversity work. This is protective for the institution since it is not known how individuals within the school will respond to the project. Schools have made a verbal commitment to be involved with the work; yet, if the project fails, the school is absolved of responsibility, since a single individual has been identified as being responsible for the completion and success of the project.

Given that the diversity coordinators often do not have any real decision-making power within the school structure and have been relegated to playing a tokenized role, it is important that others take ownership for the success of the larger research project and for diversity initiatives. Yet, this has not been the case in these schools. The diversity coordinator is the point person for the movement and progress of the study.

Another participant discussed the marginalized role that African-Americans play in the schools:

And I think a lot of the struggle has a lot to do with where we are in these schools. . . . Well (pause) —we’re still visitors. Um . . . not full club members, you know, with all the privileges. . . . Um . . . we have to be better, um . . . (pause) but because we don’t have those long reaching tentacles, in terms of history, you know, with our institutions, but we really—we have to prove everything that we do or validate it in a very special way . . . because our history here has been so short. And that, that’s a piece of it. You know, we’re not the movers and shakers. We’re not those people who, um, keep these, um, these institutions afloat, you know. I don’t have a legacy . . . here. It makes a difference.

This participant is discussing the effects of tokenism, as well as the pain and stress of what Cose (1993) termed “inability to fit it” and “exclusion from the club.”  There is an awareness that African-Americans have made strides within independent schools; however, full acceptance has not yet been gained.

Many of the coordinators also discussed how their Blackness has an effect on how they have been perceived within the schools and has influenced their roles. Their comments reflect the dilemma DuBois (as cited in Early, 1993) termed “double consciousness,” in which African-Americans are ever aware of a sense of “twoness”—being an American and being Black. Tokenized status conveys an additional type of “twoness” or “double deviancy” (Laws, 1975)—being an employee in the independent school and being Black.

In addition, there is the pressure of “pigeonholing” (Cose, 1993) and role entrapment (Kanter, 1977) in which Blacks are placed into “Black jobs.”  Many diversity coordinators talked about doing diversity work even if it was not part of their official job. Part of the reason that most diversity coordinators are people of color relates to the school’s racial identity. If the school’s culture is defined by the dominant group, which is White, denial of privilege (Fine, Weis, Powell, & Wong, 1997; McIntosh, 1992) allows schools to define race as something that others have. This denial of privilege allows members of the dominant group to define race as something salient only to people of color. Therefore, “diversity” is something that affects people of color only, making the role of diversity coordinator a “Black job” or “person-of-color job.”

One diversity coordinator discussed how the perception of her as a person has changed based on her various positions within the school:

It’s very interesting. What I’ve seen is that I am viewed as a different person in this position [currently no longer a diversity coordinator], as I went from reading specialist to, uh, diversity person, I was viewed in one light and it was unfortunate. Now I can get things done because I, I’m back to the safety (laughs). I’m not as threatening.

In this new, “safer” position, this coordinator’s Blackness is also no longer perceived as a part of his/her identity, which is a new struggle. She can again be seen as an exception to her social group, whereas this was not possible in the previous role as “diversity person.”  She has gone back to being a “good token.”


Participants also discussed the struggles that schools have undergone in defining multiculturalism and diversity. Part of the difficulty may stem from having vague definitions of diversity goals in mission statements. These goals often do not become operationalized, placing diversity coordinators in the difficult position of having to be responsible for something that is poorly defined. Alternatively, when these coordinators bring specificity to the vague diversity mission, they are confronted by the system as too controlling. In addition, the schools are taking a risk in becoming involved in a research project examining race within the school context. The headmasters at each of the schools voiced commitment to the project and to its completion. Yet they could not predict the reactions or outcomes of doing this type of research.

Some coordinators found that issues related to the school’s identity became important. Part of the institution’s identity is related to race, although this is not acknowledged by most. “White” is defined as the norm. It often appears that having “too many” students or faculty of color might challenge that norm. Helms (1990) has developed a stage theory of White racial identity development, in which the first stage called “contact” involves satisfaction with the racial status quo and obliviousness to racism and privilege. It would seem that, in defining the norm as “White,” schools are at this first stage of development. By not acknowledging race as part of the institution’s self-definition, schools are basically saying that race “belongs to others.”  Without acknowledgment of racism and privilege and by assuming that the institutional identity is raceless, the school context is disempowering for African-Americans (Tatum, 1997).

Certainly engaging the rest of my school community has been more of a struggle than I thought, even though I’ve been able to identify allies and to come at the project in a collective sense, in that way. . . . People are so entrenched and I just did not, I don’t know why I didn’t realize it . . . maybe, you know, (it) didn’t make any sense for me not to realize it, but I just didn’t realize that people really look at their classroom or their division or their department as a fiefdom . . . you know, the walls are there and the moat is there. You’ve gotta cross all of that to get in order to make change. And for some people . . . this is really transformational change and everything has to be destroyed in order for it to build. I didn’t realize that. I thought that it was all sort of gradual and that everybody (would) look at it and say, “oh, of course.” You know what I mean. But that is not the case. So, that’s been a struggle.

This coordinator believed that the school’s participation in the research project was an indication that the school was willing to undergo change, without understanding that change is not always welcomed and is often feared. The possibility of transformational change in the school is a threat to the school’s institutional identity. Taking the administration’s word at face value and assuming participation in the larger study meant real commitment to the project, and to change may leave this coordinator vulnerable. This coordinator is tokenized within the school and is questioning the dominant culture, which may increase his/her vulnerability and stress.

Two participants discussed how even supposedly simple tasks were difficult, such as getting enrollment and retention data, which is another way that people in the school demonstrate resistance.

Or that people (will) be defensive because you ask them for statistics about . . .  “Well, we don’t do that. We don’t keep statistics.”  Well, even though, they do have that, you know, because I remember being at admissions. They came, all the independent schools, they, they, NAIS asks you for who, but they probably didn’t keep track of it. They filled out the form and sent it back. So it isn’t that they never did it. It’s just that they never chose to keep records, keep it. So, it’s just that sort of thing.


Since one of the goals of the current project was to gain an understanding of the impact of participation in the larger research study, it is not surprising that all of the participants made comments about the study. Participants were asked what they perceived to be the goals of the project, what has been involved in the project for them, and what participation has been like. It was anticipated that connection with coordinators from other schools might ameliorate some of the effects of tokenism.

All of the participants discussed the support that they received from others on the research team. After feeling alone within the schools, the research team could provide a context for mutual empathy, connection, and empowerment (Surrey, 1991). In addition, the team could provide validation through discussion of the group’s experiential communality (Nobles, 1991). Support from others was also a means of ameliorating the stress of “being the only one.”  

One participant talked about feeling a sense of connection to other diversity coordinators on the research team:

Um . . . but it’s been . . .  that’s been a really terrific sort of aside to all of this, you know, being able to call [names one of the other coordinators] on the phone and say, this is what’s happened. What do you think about that?  And know that when she’s telling me, she’s not telling me as, you know [names the coordinator’s official job title], but she’s telling me as somebody whom I’ve worked with and whom I really respect . . .

Another participant stated:

It was overwhelming. It was invigorating. It was, it was wonderful. It’s been a wonderful process. Um, you know, I’ve made lots of good friends. . . .”  This coordinator then went on to say, “I think initially, we pulled together because it was giving us something. . . . You know, we got our little support sessions. . . . It really gave us all something that we needed . . . emotionally, socially, um . . . a special little visit to the therapist (laughs).

Two of the participants have been in positions where they have struggled with their perceptions within the school and have had less power within their school contexts, as compared to the other participants. In terms of the interviews, these two participants discussed issues of marginalization or being the only one more often than the other coordinators and talked less about having real access to the head of school. They also talked more about negative emotional issues, but seemed to use the interview to process their feelings. The other respondents who expressed some negative emotional experience spontaneously offered their perceptions or framing of the emotion, suggesting that they had had the time or place to process the experience.

These two participants also shared personal stories that were painful for them, suggesting that the interview was a place for them to do some emotional processing. Both of these coordinators displayed cognitive dissonance related to race, called “racial cognitive dissonance” here. Essentially, cognitive dissonance occurs when simultaneously held attitudes are inconsistent or when there is a conflict between belief and behavior. In cognitive theory, this dissonance needs resolution, which serves as the basis for attitude change, so that attitudes are consistent with behavior (Reber, 1985). Racial cognitive dissonance is conceptualized as having a protective function, in that negative racial experiences are rewritten in memory in such a way as to be less anxiety-provoking. Anxiety can be avoided when situations are reframed as not being racial in nature. Racial cognitive dissonance is demonstrated by a “yes . . . but” attitude, in which the “yes” corresponds to the belief that things are okay, and then evidence is offered that contradicts this belief. It is also demonstrated by excusing behaviors of others by creating attributions or motivations that explain the behavior in non-racial terms.

“Yes . . . but” was shown by one participant who initially talked about the amount of support received within the school:

I feel very supported because I work very closely with the division director. And because of this role with the diversity, I also have a direct communication with the head, which I don’t think other people in my position or in my group would necessarily have. So, I feel pretty supported.

Later, this coordinator went on to talk at length about becoming marginalized within the school as a result of the work with diversity. She talked at length about how the research project is perceived as her project, and there has not been ownership of the project by the school. This coordinator is becoming “pigeonholed” (Cose, 1993). Others do not need to take ownership of the project since diversity is a “Black issue” and therefore, a “Black job.”

In addition, this coordinator related the following painful incident, which seems to contradict the previous statement about being supported in the school. The incident also reflects her risk for developing “identity troubles” by speaking out about racial issues, which may lead to “self-censorship and silence” (Cose, 1993). The incident occurred during lunch—the coordinator was sitting with members of the English department, who were discussing a course on ancient literature that had not been assigned to a teacher. The teacher who was going to teach it said that it would be a difficult course to assign, since a new person would not be familiar with the specialized text that had been used in the past. The teachers were discussing the need to select a new book, thereby changing the focus of the course.

So, then they’re batting around all these ideas about well maybe we’ll teach, um, something from the English period of dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah or maybe we’ll teach something from this, and maybe, you know, and it’s all this very Eurocentric, you know. So I said, “Is there anything that you could do that would be people of color, you know, aren’t there ancient Asian texts that you could, you know. Or what about using, um, fables or folk tales or something like that, that would involve people of color?” And they kind of looked at me. And one of them said, a woman said, “I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”  And I said, “What do you, why, what do you mean?” She said, “You know what? I’ve had diversity up to here and I just don’t wanna talk about it anymore. I’m having lunch, and I just really don’t wanna talk about it.” And I felt like, I fell completely silent because she made it very clear that she had had it with that and, you know, if I were gonna open my mouth, certainly that’s what I was gonna say, so she didn’t wanna hear it. And I sat there for a few more minutes and then I ended up getting up and leaving because I felt so awful and she came back later and apologized and said she’d really had, you know, had been having a rough day and they’d been talking about this over and over and over and every year and she was just tired of it. But I knew that she was really speaking of how she—that that was the way she felt. . . . And I wondered how many other people felt that way. When they see me coming and I sit down, you know, and we begin a conversation, if that’s what they’re hearing. So, that, that’s not been fun . . . you know, I don’t wanna be the only person talking about [diversity issues].

So, while this coordinator initially talked about the amount of support s/he received within the school, evidence was then provided suggesting that this was not the case. For this coordinator, racial cognitive dissonance allows her to continue in the job, believing that she is supported. This coordinator did view the teacher’s behavior in the story in terms of her own role within the school; however, it is not apparent that the story was framed in terms of race. While the participant says that this teacher revealed her true thoughts on diversity, what would this mean for the diversity coordinator? What does it mean that no one at the table challenged this teacher’s view? To view the teacher’s behavior, and that of the others at the table, in racial terms may have been too difficult for this coordinator.

The other participant related the following story, in which the coordinator experiences the stress of “presumption of failure” and “low expectations” (Cose, 1993):

I think I was in the 8th grade, and, uh, I had a teacher tell me that I wasn’t gonna turn out to be any good. And I’ll never forget that. . . . And after I got this scholarship to go to private school, I think it was in my junior year or maybe even 10th grade. I went back to the school (laughs, then interviewer laughs) to visit, ’cause I still lived in the neighborhood. And, yeah, “I want you to know where I am right now and I want you to know what I’m doing, you know, and I’m gonna tell you what my plans are too, you know.” And after I went back and I spoke to him and I thought about it some more ’cause he was very cordial and wasn’t apologetic. I said, that might have been more of a motivational thing—that he said that on purpose ’cause he kinda knew what I was made of but he wasn’t sure, but he figured that that might spark something within me, you know. And as you can see, I can remember that and that happened a long time ago. But I remember that very clearly. And he was a, he was a teacher that I admired. So, that, that was inspiring.

This seems to be a painful incident, but by rewriting the incident as one that was intended to be motivational, it was easier to deal with. Not to have done this would require examination of the motives and attitudes of an admired teacher. Both incidents described were reminders to the coordinators of their “other” status. Racial cognitive dissonance is a means of coping with the stress of a tokenized role. By rewriting painful incidents, it is possible to excuse the behavior of members of the dominant group. Racial cognitive dissonance also allows tokenized individuals to continue to aspire to dominant group values, which is necessary for staying in the system.


Diversity coordinators in independent schools have tokenized status by virtue of their numerical scarcity in the school, their non-privileged racial status in the school, and due to the fact that they are functioning in a pseudo-administrative capacity, which has been the purview of Whites in the schools. This tokenized status leads to stress and vulnerability. In addition, coordinators have the additional stress and risk associated with being the person responsible for the “multicultural health” of the school. It is telling that such a vaguely defined and daunting task is assigned to someone with very little real power in the school—a tokenized individual. If diversity coordinators are to address issues of diversity and multiculturalism within the school, they are challenging the dominant group culture of the school. As such, they are no longer playing the role of a “good” token. Due to the nature of their role as diversity coordinator, interactions between the coordinator and members of the dominant group change. For example, it is no longer possible to identify the coordinator as someone exceptional, compared to her/his social group. Tokenized individuals have very little agency within their work settings and diversity coordinators have even less.  To challenge the tokenized role is to threaten the status quo of the institution.  Interestingly, at the time this manuscript was submitted, three of the five interviewees were no longer working in the same capacity, and one had left the school for a (“non-diversity”) job in another independent school.

Interview data revealed that diversity coordinators often felt isolated and marginalized within the schools. Coordinators struggled with their role as “diversity person,” since it impacted how they were perceived in the schools. The role of diversity coordinator resulted in making explicit their sense of “twoness” (DuBois, as cited in Early, 1993) and “double deviance” (Laws, 1975). As coordinators attempted to address issues of multiculturalism and diversity within the schools, either through their work or by their involvement with the larger research project, the system responded with resistance. Members of the dominant group became concerned that the very identity of the school was at stake. It should be noted that the coordinators serve an important function within these schools. Without someone continually addressing issues of diversity, whether in terms of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and so on, the system would be content to maintain the status quo. In this sense, the diversity coordinators represent hope for change. However, without examination of institutional racial identity and privilege, “diversity” and race will continue to be seen as problems of people of color.  Even with increased numbers of people of color in these schools, until privilege is addressed, the token-dominant system will remain in place (Yoder, 1991; Zimmer, 1988).

Finally, coordinators discussed individual coping strategies used in dealing with the stress of being tokenized and of being diversity coordinator. Connection with other coordinators through the larger research project was validating and empowering for coordinators. Many developed mentoring relationships and friendships. These relationships helped to normalize feelings and gave coordinators a safe context for emotional processing (Hall, 1999). Some discussed support from school officials, but this was bracketed with the painful reality that the schools were not fully engaged with the diversity effort. Other coordinators demonstrated racial cognitive dissonance in thinking about negative racial experiences. Racial cognitive dissonance serves a protective function, in that it allows the person to continue to function within a sometimes hostile setting. While this practice may be helpful in the short term, longer-term consequences are less clear.

As a result of the findings of this study, some suggestions are offered:


“Diversity” should be redefined, such that it includes all groups, not just groups defined as “other.” In fact, it is suggested that schools move beyond using the word “diverse” in defining goals. The term has different meanings for different people. In addition, it has become a “buzzword.” We suggest that schools define their goals more specifically. For example, schools might address issues of faculty-of-color recruitment and retention, increasing enrollment of students of color, and so on. In addition, schools should address the school culture and its impact on numerically scarce groups. Schools could identity specific goals to address the school climate, such as aspiring to become an anti-racist school (Helms, 1990) or an anti-sexist school. Words like diversity and multiculturalism should be clearly defined. When talking about an issue such as race or sexual orientation, for example, it should be made explicit to get away from the “diversity mystique,” in which people are able to intellectualize and avoid discussing race and racism under the guise of discussing “diversity” (Hall & Arrington, 2000).


Initiatives around multiculturalism should include components on White racial identity development (Helms, 1990) and discussions of privilege. Trained psychologists should be available for these discussions, since these types of conversations tend to become emotional. Permission needs to be granted for participants to feel emotions such as anger or guilt. It is important to identify and process these emotions, and then collectively work past them.


One person should not shoulder the burden of diversity work in the schools. This leads to coordinators becoming lightning rods for resistance by being identified with change that others find threatening. Ideally, others should be included, including Whites. There is a concern, however, that independent schools have too many committees. Schools must explore ways to integrate diversity work into the mainstream culture of the school rather than simply make “diversity” the task of a special committee. The goal is to move beyond having “diversity day,” in which students bring in ethnic foods for the day, or discussing Black history only in February. It would be better that there be at least two diversity coordinators rather than one in order to address the emotional strain and different diversity agendas present within independent schools.


Schools should encourage and support affinity groups of all kinds (e.g., faculty-of-color meetings, student-of-color organizations). These can be both across and within groups that are numerically scarce in the school.


Schools should encourage connections across schools since people of color represent such a small number. Connections could occur through business meetings or social events. These connections could be for diversity coordinators, faculty, students, or parents. These contexts would provide mutual empathic connections with others, which would be empowering (Surrey, 1991).


Schools should judge their openness to seriously addressing diversity issues by the degree to which they integrate cultural paradigms, concepts, and knowledge within the traditional educational curricula. Is debate on the traditional canons of knowledge possible within the independent school curricula? If so, how is it observed and practiced and are students, teachers, and administrators of color able to easily identify and refer to these practices?

Overall, the goal is to create a climate in which all members of the community are involved in defining the school’s culture. Increasing the numbers of people of color is important, but can have a backlash effect if members of the dominant group feel intruded upon. Therefore, work with White administrators, faculty, staff, and students around issues of racial identity development and efforts toward becoming anti-racist are crucial. In order for institutions to become anti-racist, the efforts of all members of the community are needed. There needs to be a shift from defining one (White) perspective as the norm to working with “multiple norms.”  This work would provide White members of the school communities the opportunity to connect with school community members of color. Once all members are able to engage in mutually empathic connections, there are opportunities for growth and empowerment for the entire community. Healthy, empowered, and confident members can only increase the strength and vitality of the whole institution.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Diane M. Hall, Division of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, 3700 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA  19104-6216.

We are grateful to the diversity coordinators who participated in the interviews.  A special thanks to Janice D. Yoder for her review and comments.

The larger study described was funded by grant P01 #MH-57136 from the National Institute of Mental Health, Howard C. Stevenson and Margaret Beale Spencer, Primary Investigators.


1 Kanter’s terminology of token, dominant, minority, and majority are used here.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 1, 2007, p. 1-23 ID Number: 12715, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:59:39 PM

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