Diversity Troubles

HDS Photograph

By Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

The term “diversity” invites celebration.1 In his 2001 speech to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Archbishop Desmond Tutu elaborated on why we should celebrate differences:

We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity. There is not just one planet or one star; there are galaxies of all different sorts, a plethora of animal species, different kinds of plants, and different races and ethnic groups. . . . We are constantly being made aware of the glorious diversity that is written into the structure of the universe. . . .

Yet, while celebrating the diversity of creation, Tutu is also well aware that the social-structural differences of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, age, and many more engender a type of diversity that provokes anxiety, strife, prejudice, and even murder and war. Often, the rhetoric of diversity and difference obscures these structures of domination that cause so much suffering and injustice. For instance, the Standing Committee on Diversity at Harvard Divinity School replaced the Committee on Race, since diversity includes race. However, this change of name also derailed us from exploring racism as a structural component within the School. The language of diversity makes any particular “elephant in the room,” whether it is racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, classism, or colonialism (to mention a few “isms”), less visible, rather than more. People who use these terms tend to be seen as unscholarly, unsophisticated, malcontent, or ideological.

Human beings differ from each other in innumerable ways, but we are also divided by these social-structural differences of domination. Such structures of domination privilege some people of certain cultures, races, and religions while they negatively label and discriminate against most others. These structures are so powerful because they have engendered experiences and histories of discrimination and still do so today. We are all born and socialized into them and have internalized them through education, culture, and religion. Diversity invites not only celebration but also critical reflection, lest the powers of our privileges at HDS blind us to the troubles we are a part of.

A rich array of “diversity studies,” as well as research on privilege and power, has been developed in the past forty years. However, women/gender/feminist studies, African, African American, Latin American, Mesoamerican, queer, or postcolonial studies in religion are found at the borders and margins of the curriculum and are not central to the research and educational ethos of the academy. They are seen as important for women, black, gay, disabled, or foreign students, but not for white straight American men. They are discussed as perspectival opinions, but not as serious scholarship, which is still defined as “universal,” meaning European American.

To give an example from my own work: The course “Introduction to the New Testament” is the scientific heart of my field of study. To change its Eurocentric frame, I assign not only European American, but also African American, feminist, queer, postcolonial, Latina, and Asian essays and commentaries. Although I emphasize throughout the semester the perspectival character of all interpretation, some students still say in their course evaluation that too much time was spent on perspectives and not enough on “objective” scientific commentary. Because I am tenured, I don’t need to worry about such evaluations, but junior colleagues are at risk if they try to teach a multiplicity of approaches and perspectives rather than the dominant scientific European American perspective, shaped by a nineteenth-century understanding of science. White male class privilege still determines our pedagogy and discourses.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the scientific ethos of value-free scholarship (presumed to be untainted by social relations and political interest) was institutionalized in such academic studies as biblical studies or the study of religion. Historians Nancy Leys Stepan and Sander Gilman, among many others, have pointed out that the professional institutionalization of scholarship as value-neutral, apolitical, universal, empirical, and methodologically objective science, as an “unbiased arena of knowledge,” was not a “natural” outcome of unbiased study,

. . . but a social outcome of a process whereby science was historically and materially constituted to have certain meanings, functions, and interests. In a complex series of innovations, science’s epistemological claims were given definition and institutional representation in the form of new scientific societies and organizations sharply delimited from other institutions. These innovations were tied not only to industrialization, but to the politics of class, and the closing of ranks of bourgeois society. . . . Race and gender were also crucial to the construction of modern science, in that science was defined as “masculine” and European in its abstraction, detachment, and objectivity.2

This professionalization of the academic disciplines engendered theoretical dichotomies, such as pure or impure, theoretical or applied science. Dualistic opposites—rational and irrational, objective and subjective, hard and soft, male and female, Europeans and colonials, secular and religious—were given material form, not only in professional disciplines, but also in their discursive practices.

To give another example of how this ethos is at work in our midst: The criteria for hiring new faculty or promoting a faculty member to associate or full professorship with tenure are publications, teaching, and community service. Doctoral and faculty candidates are measured by the standards of the disciplines which have been articulated mostly by white male European American scholars in the nineteenth century. If candidates are white males, they are not expected to know the new variegated theories of scholars who before, in, and after the nineteenth century have been excluded from the European American academy: women of all colors, African Americans, Asians, differently abled people, or scholars of other religions.

Doctoral candidates around the world are still advised to pick a dissertation topic that is, for instance, not feminist or womanist, if they want to have an academic future. If they insist, they are required first to deconstruct existing feminist or womanist work as intellectually deficient and replace it with the intellectual framework of one of the “great academic men” in order to produce new acceptable scholarship. Or, to give another example, faculty members are judged by promotion committees on whether they have established mutual relations with colleagues in Europe, but are rarely asked whether they have such relations with scholars from Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

Why is it so difficult to create an academic culture of diversity that studies and produces knowledge about social discriminations and their religious underpinnings? Why is it so difficult to develop a pedagogy of diversity that provides “safe” radical democratic learning spaces and encourages intellectual exchange across the dividing lines of domination? I suggest that, at least at Harvard, it may be our status of privilege that hinders us from analyzing research and pedagogical structures that support prejudice and domination.

Harvard is one of the richest universities in the world, known for its rigorous scholarship and Ivy League education. However, this knowledge of belonging to a place of privilege and meritocracy also engenders insecurity (am I worthy to be here?) and competition (I have to show that I am more worthy than others). Moreover, it persuades us to align ourselves with those in power rather than with those who are marginal. Finally, it prevents us from questioning our institutional ethos. As good liberals, we have nothing against affirmative action so long as student and faculty candidates speak our language of privilege and not their own.

In my home institution, Harvard Divinity School, we are at a pivotal point. The diversity of our student body has greatly increased. Moreover, we have decided to give up our Christian privileges and to create a space for multi- and transreligion studies. We need now to go a further step in this direction and give up our scientific privilege rooted in a decontextualized understanding of science that does not critically reflect on its social responsibilities. In its place, we need to articulate a decolonizing study of religions that is gender, race, heteronormativity, and class critical. My colleague Jacob Olupona suggested some ways forward. He offered three goals for theological education in the future: more in-depth study of indigenous religious traditions as ways of knowing, including so-called world religions in their regional particularity; attention not only to how immigrant religious communities are changing the religious landscape, but also encouraging religious studies to engage with the moral, ethical, and metaphorical questions immigration engenders; and increased internationalization.

As members of academia, we all have privilege and power (perhaps nowhere more so than at Harvard), but each of us has different privilege and power because of our race, class, or gender, our histories, language, education, status, or religion. We need to create spaces for exploring the differences perpetuated by male, class, colonial, abled white Eurocentric privilege. Let us use our university’s privilege and power not just to develop a different critical study of religions able to investigate the intersecting structures of domination. Let us also use it to engage in the pedagogical work of making us conscious of our power and privilege, and from that consciousness, to articulate a religious vision of diversity in terms of radical equality—and not sameness.


  1. ​I would like to thank my colleagues Davíd Carrasco, Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, and Jacob Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions, who were my conversation partners at Harvard Divinity School’s 2011 Convocation and who reviewed and contributed to the original talk. We jointly titled our conversation, “Diversity Troubles,” thinking of troubles in Carrasco’s words “as a noun to signal the trouble, the unrest, the fear and even the hatred that cultural, religious, and gender differences can sometimes bring. We also think of trouble as a verb, as a word of agency, as in all this diversity troubles the waters.”
  2. Nancy Leys Stepan and Sander L. Gilman, “Appropriating the Idioms of Science: The Rejection of Scientific Racism,” in The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future, ed. Sandra Harding (Indiana University Press, 1993), 173. See also Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Harvard University Press, 1989).

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. This piece originated as part of the 2011 Harvard Divinity School Convocation, given jointly with Davíd Carrasco, Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, and Jacob Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions. The 2011 Convocation may be viewed online via the HDS YouTube channel.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.