Overlooked Diversity – Religion, Faith, & Spirituality

The following is a post I wrote for the Graduate Society of Women Engineers blog – check out the original post here.

When we discuss the many identities we carry in our lives, the most commonly listed are often race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability status. When we discuss diversity and inclusion, our efforts often center on one of, if not the intersection of, these identities. However, one core identity for many of us has seemed to slip through our collective radar – religion and spirituality. “In an era when colleges are expanding their engagement of diversity issues, and at a time when religion plays a central role in public life and global affairs, religion continues to be the dimension of diversity that many institutions leave out.” This is a central claim in Eboo Patel’s article “Faith Is The Diversity Issue Ignored by College Campuses” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2018. In the article, she discusses the possibilities and needs on campuses to recognize this difference. Additionally, she asserts that efforts for religious inclusivity on campus are underfunded, if funded at all. She writes about the transformative possibilities of having interfaith dialogues and unpacking stereotypes and prejudices. As soon as I read this it seemed to immediately ‘click’ – and I’ve become pretty passionate about the subject. Eboo Patel is right – religious diversity is often left out. Why should we start paying attention to this?

Well, as always, it is all interconnected. Namely, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments and stereotypes are connected to racism through a process called “racialization.” This is where those religious identities become synonymous, interchangeable, and stereotyped as having a race and ethnicity all of their own. At the center is a thing called whiteness – described as “the elevation of those perceived and defined as white above other individuals in society” (Battey 2016). The people who are considered “white” hold power and privilege in society at the systematic expense of others. While many Jewish and Muslim individuals in America may identify as white, this is not quite how oppression operates. If we begin to shift language away from vague notions of racism and directly confront whiteness and white supremacy, this concept defines Jews as existing outside of whiteness. This concept is explained by Eric Ward who is a scholar on the subject in his 2017 article “Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” published by Political Research Associates:

“What I learned when I got to Oregon, as I began to log untold hours trying to understand White nationalists and their ideas, was that antisemitism was the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. That within this ideological matrix, Jews—despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as White—are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated. Antisemitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.”

Research demonstrates that 40% of Jewish students on college campuses have experienced discrimination, and that this number has currently reached its highest levels as ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League (Mayhew 2018). Alongside this, Muslim students on college campuses are often assumed and conflated with Arab and Arab-American students and vice versa. Muslim identity spans ethnicity and nationality but is tied to perceptions of Arabs and Arab Americans in the United States (Abdulhadi 2011). It has become all too common in public discourse to use the words Middle Eastern and Muslim as interchangeable or identical. Muslim students on college campuses tend to bear the brunt of this racialized religious essentialism leading to diminished appreciative attitudes by peers, becoming viewed as untrustworthy, un-American, and sexually violent (Rockenbach 2017). And again, this research does not focus on racial identity or ethnic identity, but students’ religious identity. Put together, the intersectionality of race and religion with other inequitable structures underscores its importance as a subject for those advocating for diversity and inclusion to grapple with.

Race, religion, and discrimination all are tied together in a knot. Where do we go with this information? One way we can advance inclusive language and spaces is to develop interfaith understanding and interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue, as defined on Wikipedia, “refers to cooperative, constructive, and positive interaction between people of different religious traditions (i.e., “faiths”) and/or spiritual or humanistic beliefs, at both the individual and institutional levels.” When we create training and materials to unpack our identities alongside race and gender and sexuality, perhaps we can start unpacking and moving towards understanding other faiths and spiritualities. We can start to listen to others’ experiences, their values, their families, and how religious observance might shape our peers’ lives.

Mia J Merrill recently wrote a post for Alma titled “My College Called It A ‘Controversial’ Art Show. I Called It Anti-Semitic.” In her post she writes about how poor understanding of Jewish history, attitudes and beliefs, and anti-semitic stereotypes became normalized and accepted on her campus at an event. With no bystanders to intervene, Mia felt alone in raising issue with the offensive art. With no religious understanding or interfaith cultural training given to other art students and staff, they did not realize how offensive tying together the Holocaust with animal cruelty was. She wrote on how her Jewish identity and experience shape her experiences on campus, and how others may not see what she sees:

He told me something that I had forgotten in my hurt and anger: that certain things are ingrained in us, things that spark fear or chill in our bones, things that ignite us. We see the word “money” too close to the word “Jew” and we panic. We see an overt metaphor for the Holocaust in media or art where others see a subtle reference to generic oppression. Not everyone is wired like us, just as I do not share the same instinct that might make someone else react in fear to signs of their inherited traumas. These are the intricacies of intercultural communication that we have to specify for one another.

This is the key takeaway message I wish to impart. Not everyone is wired like us – we all see the world differently. That is one of the central organizing themes in diversity & inclusion work – to help each other see what each other sees, to collectively reduce fear, hurt, and traumas. We have to specify these for others. And that is why faith, religion, and spirituality cannot be left out of our toolkit for inclusive engineering spaces.


Interested in learning more about the subject?

Join the GradSWE Diversity and Inclusion Virtual Online Reading Club! Meet to discuss topics as they relate to our development as engineering professionals! We are striving for a space which is accommodating to those who have had no prior experience engaging with topics of equity and inclusion, while also providing a space for rich engagement for those who are already versed in the field. Every month we will have materials such as articles, videos, and podcasts which we can look at on our own and then meet online to discuss and share our learning in a group webcall format.

Our next topic is “Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and Racism“ and we will meet online the week of April 8th – 12th. If you would like to learn about this topic and how it relates to our growth as engineering professionals, email gradswe.dil@gmail.com and get connected with our online diversity & inclusion reading club!


Abdulhadi, R., Alsultany, E., Naber, N. (2011). Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging. Syracuse University Press: NY.

Battey, D., Leyva, L. (2016). A Framework for Understanding Whiteness in Mathematics Education. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 9(2): 49-80.

Mayhew, J., Bowman, N., Rockenbach, A., Selznick, B., Riggers-Piehl, T. (2018). Appreciative Attitudes towards Jews among Non-Jewish US College Students. Journal of College Student Development, vol 59, no 1, pp. 71-89.

Rockenbach, A., Mayhew, M., Bowman, N., Morin, S., Riggers-Piehl, T. (2017). An Examination of Non-Muslim College Students’ Attitudes Towards Muslims. The Journal of Higher Education, vol 88, no 4, pp. 479-504.

Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp is a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explores the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education.

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