When Images of Diversity Don't Match Reality

The most diverse place on campus is a shiny, happy spot that exists in two dimensions: the brochures, viewbooks and annual reports that colleges and universities produce for public consumption.
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The most diverse place on campus is a shiny, happy spot that exists in two dimensions: the brochures, viewbooks and annual reports that colleges and universities produce for public consumption. Glance through these glossy publications and you'll see smiling out at you a plethora of minority member faces. Such images are meant to convey these institutions' warm embrace of diversity to prospective students, employees and supporters. But research suggests that when the images don't line up with reality, the use of minority member photographs can backfire, generating an effect exactly opposite of the one intended.

In an article published this month in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, researchers investigated the reactions produced by the "overrepresentation" of minority images in a flyer advertising a local university. The study, led by Jennifer Spoor of La Trobe University in Australia, found that white students felt more positively about a flyer that overrepresented the proportion of Asian students on their campus than about a flyer with more accurate depictions.

However, students of Asian ethnicity (a stigmatized minority group in Australia) felt less favorable towards the advertisement that showed many Asian faces than toward a flyer that showed a more realistic number. "Minority group members may be frustrated by the fact that overrepresentation gives an overly rosy picture of majority-minority relations," Spoor theorized, while members of the majority group may feel only a gratifying glow upon seeing their university portrayed as diverse.

Images that present a misleading vision of diversity are common in college publications, finds Timothy Pippert, an associate professor of sociology at Augsburg College in Minnesota. In a study published last year in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, Pippert and his colleagues analyzed more than 10,000 photographs found in the recruitment materials of 165 four-year educational institutions in the U.S. The majority of schools, Pippert reports, "provided images of diversity" that were "significantly different than the actual student body." In fact, the whiter the student body at a college, the more often images of minorities were featured in its publications.

At times, this misrepresentation of reality has verged on the fraudulent. Both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Idaho have been caught digitally pasting minority faces onto photographs of white students used in marketing materials. Diallo Shabazz, an African-American student whose face was Photoshopped onto the cover of UW's admissions brochure in 2000, sued the university and received what he called a "budgetary apology": the university earmarked $10 million for the recruitment of minority students and the implementation of diversity initiatives.

It's a good thing that our colleges and universities are no longer treating minorities as if they were invisible, at least in the marketing sphere. And to the extent that brochures and viewbooks are aspirational documents, the inclusion of minorities' images may tell a hopeful story of what institutions wish to become, even if they're not there yet. But making sure that minority group members feel a genuine sense of belonging on campus will take far more than a handful of photos.

This fact is represented with painful clarity by a new project, "I, Too, Am Harvard," a photo campaign in which students of color attending Harvard University make public their own images of life at that august institution. These photographs, in which students stare straight into the camera, are nothing like the beaming images found in admissions brochures. In the portraits, students hold signs expressing some element of their experience at the university -- a day-to-day reality that is very different from the multicultural fiesta featured in the university's marketing materials.

In these students' silent telling, their race is more apt to be negated than celebrated. "You don't sound black... You sound smart," reads the sign board held by one student. "I don't even think of you as black," reads another. "You're the whitest black person I know," reads a third (evidently somebody's idea of a compliment). And held by one young woman, wearing an expression both challenging and vulnerable, is a sign bearing someone else's comment, and her own question: "'I don't see color.' Does that mean you don't see me?"

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