Book Review: Taking on Diversity

Talley Student Union at night

If you’ve ever wanted to know what NC State students encounter these days in the areas of interpersonal relations and diversity, Taking on Diversity: How To Move From Anxiety To Respect (by NC State Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology Rupert Nacoste, Prometheus Books, 2015) provides a close-up look at some of their experiences. In many instances, it ain’t pretty. As a west coast native who only came to the south as an adult, I was surprised by the living history of prejudice that Nacoste’s students recount in their essays. Because of that, Taking on Diversity is a book that is difficult to put down. Each essay seems a little more shocking than the last. Bigotry is alive and well, sadly.

Taking on DiversityFraming the well-chosen excerpts from what must have been some of his most thoughtfully-written student papers, Nacoste also teaches us a few key concepts from his NC State psychology course, Interpersonal Relationships and Race. For starters, he differentiates between racism, which is an institutional or systemic problem, and bigotry, which is displayed by individuals. While the U.S. has made great strides in eliminating racist laws, there is still bigotry flaring up all over the place. So much so that Nacoste makes sure we know that “there are no innocent” when it comes to who might harbor bigoted thoughts and ideas or behave in a bigoted manner, whether intentionally or otherwise. This simultaneously equalizing and liberating premise is probably one reason why Nacoste is regarded as a popular and beloved teacher by students of all colors – if there are no innocent, then the playing field is level for all of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work fixing the problem.

Nacoste gently exhorts students and readers alike to make sure no instance slips by when we could be taking a gentle but firm stand to help point out, and by doing so to prevent more, bigoted behavior. To be effective, we need to do this on a personal, individual level within the relationships that matter to us: families, friends and acquaintances. He even provides a phrase that has shown to be most effective in doing so: “I’m sorry, but I am very uncomfortable with that kind of language. I find it offensive; it hurts me.” This appeals to someone emotionally within the context of a relationship that matters to both people. These instances might ordinarily go unchecked or excused. Yet by not remarking on a frat brother’s frequent use of a racial slur or Aunt Betty’s ignorant comment, we silently condone a legacy of thought instead of putting it to rest for the betterment of society.

A social psychologist, Nacoste has his students explore their experiences on the basis of models of interpersonal behavior, some of which he developed or co-developed, that are characterized by stages. The models explain how and why conflicts erupt between individuals on the basis of race, gender attitudes, religion, sexual orientation and other diverse personal characteristics. He includes just enough scholarly explanation to satisfy but not overwhelm the lay reader while still enlightening those who wonder why these conflicts happen more and more in what Nacoste terms our “neo-diverse” society, with its ever-increasing influx of intersectional identities. Moving back and forth from the pedantic to the philosophical and occasionally to the poetic, Nacoste shows a flair for capturing his lifelong passion for diversity work, his ability to transform and then champion his students and his dedication to fighting the good fight in the fields of diversity and interpersonal relations. This book should be required reading for everyone in the NC State community.

Elizabeth Snively leads the Communications team in the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.