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Wits Centre for Diversity Studies

The Wits Centre for Diversity Studies is based in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand. Through interdisciplinary postgraduate education, courses for the public, and research, WiCDS aims to build capacity to meet the challenges of diverse societies, especially in post-apartheid South Africa.

In addition to being grounded in social justice imperatives, the research and education of the programme is informed by Melissa Steyn’s (2007) notion of Critical Diversity Literacy which is “a sharply focussed critical lens which examines those operations of power which implicate social identities to create systems of privilege, advantage, disadvantage and oppression. The US academic, France Winddance Twine, has described what she calls ‘racial literacy’. (Ethnic and Racial Studies, November, 2004). Adapting the concept to embrace other forms of systemic social oppression, such as gender, sexuality, dis/ability etc. we can describe the field of diversity studies as that which develops ‘diversity literacy’ in scholars and researchers.

‘Critical Diversity literacy’ is a set of practices. It can best be characterized as a ‘reading practice’ – a way of perceiving and responding to the social climate and prevalent structures of oppression. The analytical criteria employed to evaluate the presence of diversity literacy include the following:

  1. a recognition of the symbolic and material value of hegemonic identities, such as whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, ablebodiedness etc.;
  2. analytic skill at unpacking how these systems of oppression intersect, interlock, co-construct and constitute each other;
  3. the definition of oppressive systems such as racism as current social problems rather than a historical legacy;
  4. an understanding that social identities are learned and an outcome of social practices;
  5. the possession of a diversity grammar and a vocabulary that facilitates a discussion of race, racism, and antiracism, and the parallel concepts employed in the analysis of other forms of oppression;
  6. the ability to translate (interpret) coded hegemonic practices;
  7. an analysis of the ways that diversity hierarchies and institutionalised oppressions are mediated by class inequality;
  8. an engagement with issues of transformation of these oppressive systems towards deepening democracy in all levels of social organisation.

Drawing on cutting edge social theory, the Diversity Studies lens opens up challenging research questions which emerge in the interstices of current disciplinary boundaries and that have the capacity to shift ‘common sense’ assumptions about the social, enabling fresh and penetrating analyses of current social challenges. While no single research methodology need necessarily flows from Diversity Literacy, it logically involves the recognition of social construction and the constitutive role of discourse, and employs critical social theory.