Schools, workplaces, and entire societies are dealing with new, culturally diverse populations, and how they respond to these demographic changes will have lasting impacts for everyone involved. Yet, diversity policies are often put in place without insight into the consequences. As researchers from the Belgian university KU Leuven, we followed more than 3000 students in 66 Flemish secondary schools for two years to see which kinds of policies have the best outcomes for students. Although many people think that being “colorblind” or encouraging students to assimilate to the dominant culture are the best strategies, a multicultural approach actually worked best.

To study the effects of school policies on students, we first dug into the mission statements and operating rules of these 66 schools to find out how they deal with diversity. We found three main approaches.

Colorblindness: Most schools opt for a Colorblind approach in which cultural diversity is viewed as irrelevant and generally ignored. The emphasis is on secularism with individualistic values: everyone is unique.

Assimilationism: The Assimilationist approach, the second most common approach, rejects cultural diversity within the school and expects students to leave their non-Belgian culture outside of school and conform to the mainstream culture.

Multiculturalism: The third approach, Multiculturalism, focuses on the added value of learning from cultural differences and educating students to become world citizens.

We then collected data on the students in these schools. Students with and without a minority background differed in their psychological well-being and in their school performance.  Specifically, students with a minority background felt less at home in school and had lower grades in Mathematics and Dutch. This gap remained even after checking for other factors that could affect school performance, such as the level of education of the parents, the students’ age and area of study, and degree of diversity at school.

However, the diversity policy of the schools made a difference in students’ well-being and performance. Depending on the school’s approach to diversity, the gap between minority and non-minority pupils either widened or disappeared.   Specifically, the colorblind approach, which ignores cultural differences, was detrimental for both well-being and performance, particularly for minorities. Minority students felt less at home in schools whose policies were based on a colorblind approach, and their school performance declined over time.  An assimilationist approach that rejected cultural diversity also had negative effects on students with a minority background. The stronger the assimilationist approach, the less minority students felt at home, and the gaps in performance persisted.

In contrast, the Multicultural approach proved to be the most beneficial. In schools with a stronger multicultural approach, there was no gap in the well-being and performance of students with and without a minority background. Minorities felt more at home and achieved higher grades in Dutch and Mathematics. Importantly, the well-being and performance of students without a minority background remained just as strong.

But, wait…isn’t this counterintuitive?

Many people defend the colorblind approach saying “Isn’t it good to stress that everyone is unique and equal? After all, isn’t it better not to emphasize or magnify differences among students? How can treating cultural differences as irrelevant have negative consequences?”

Schools and organizations opt for a colorblind approach out of good intentions. Nevertheless, various studies around the globe in schools, organizations, and societies show that the colorblind approach has negative consequences.  The problem is that, in saying that everybody is unique and equal, the colorblind approach implicitly suggests that there are no structural inequalities. It says to students: “As long as you work hard enough, you will get there—you just have to want it.”  But this sentiment is inconsistent with the daily reality that minority students face. They often experience inequalities and prejudice, and do not feel understood.

With a colorblind approach, a school does not teach minority students how to talk about and deal with experiences of discrimination. When these students are confronted with prejudice or encounter other difficulties at school, they are more likely to internalize them as an individual problem and get the feeling that “school is not for me.”

Similarly, an assimilationist approach may aim for equality by insisting that everyone act similarly in order to eliminate differences among students. However, an emphasis on assimilation can feel threatening to cultural minorities, which can lower well-being.

A multiculturalist approach, on the other hand, explicitly communicates that a school is for everyone. Students are valued not in spite of, but rather because of, their backgrounds. It signals: “You belong, with all of your differences and characteristics.” Such an approach recognizes and opposes structural inequalities. As a result, minorities feel more understood, and they will learn to identify and challenge prejudice. Inequalities are no longer seen as an individual problem, but as a structural problem. As a result, students will seek help more quickly when they are struggling at school.

Although a multicultural approach helps minority students, we must be certain that it does not have negative effects on the majority students. Research shows that a multicultural approach leads non-minority students to become more empathic, feel less threatened by people from other cultures, and learn to become world citizens. These are important advantages in a diverse and globalized society.

What is the take away? This research is relevant not only for schools, but also for governments, companies, and non-profit organizations. Anywhere people come together offers the opportunity to maximize the benefits of diversity and minimize any costs. The way an organization handles diversity can make a major difference in eliminating or increasing disparities in well-being and performance. Ignoring or rejecting differences maintains the gap, while recognizing and appreciating differences narrows it.  

A diversity policy is not just a collection of words on a (web)page, but has a real impact on outcomes for minorities that will continue for years. The choice for a specific diversity policy should be carefully considered before it is implemented. We challenge everyone who is confronted with diversity at any institution—whether it is a school, government, or workplace—to take a closer look at its diversity policy. Does it ignore or reject differences, emphasizing equality? And, are there ways to improve the policy to embrace diversity?  

For Further Reading

Celeste, L., Baysu, G., Phalet, K., Meeussen, L., & Kende, J (2019). Can School Diversity Policies Reduce Belonging and Achievement Gaps Between Minority and Majority Youth? Multiculturalism, Colorblindness, and Assimilationism Assessed. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1603–1618.

Plaut, V. C., Thomas, K. M., Kyneshawau, H., & Romano, C. A. (2018). Do color blindness and multiculturalism remedy or foster discrimination and racism? Psychological Science, 27, 200-206. doi:10.1177/0963721418766068

Rattan, A., & Ambady, N. (2013). Diversity ideologies and intergroup relations: An examination of colorblindness and multiculturalism. European Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 12-21. doi:10.1002/ejsp.1892


Dr. Laura Celeste is a researcher at the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation in British Columbia, Canada.

Dr. Loes Meeussen is a researcher at the Centre for Social and Cultural Psychology at KU Leuven, Belgium.