Diversity Education & Multicultural Affairs

Educator’s Heart-Check: Resisting Complicity in the Dehumanization of Students

It’s been a while since I’ve written here and I truly miss it. However, it’s the start of another academic year, and the place that I go from 9 to 5 (and sometimes later) is a university. Typically, my after 5 life involves writing, but at the start of an academic year – my after 5 life involves carbs and early bed times.

In the university context, I work with students who are far too often pushed to the margins and treated as the afterthought in higher education practice and policy. You can see that trend nationally. So, I work. Hard. To bring their concerns to the forefront. To mine the institution for resources that will get them through to degree attainment. To explain the labyrinthine processes that institutions hold.

We do what we can, “from where we are”. We open our doors. We come early and stay late, sometimes. We look at their faces and we are deeply familiar with the tight spot they are in: the crux of opportunity and consistent microaggressions. We empathize because it was us. If we are people of color, it often is us.

I’m always thinking about the ideas of institution, academia, and education. I’m always thinking about the similarities and differences of those words, especially as someone who a) spends a lot of time assisting students in navigating academia and b) as someone who spends quite a good amount of time around academics in my personal life.

I believe that there is an opportunity for growth and change wherever knowledge, education, and educational services are being created and critiqued.

So, in this context, ‘institution’ is a space where, as my colleague often says, we co-labor with students in navigating “the world as we wish it were, and the world that is”. And it ain’t always easy.

The words of Paulo Freire always challenge me. I read them in graduate school and each year, they come back and hold me accountable to what my eyes have read:

Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept*, and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power. Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate.

Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1993 p. 66

(*Freire uses the term “banking concept (of education) to explain the type of education which asserts that the “teacher” knows all, and the students’ primary job is to learn from the teacher. The banking concept is an extended metaphor where the educator “deposits” knowledge into the pupils, and the pupils are expected to regurgitate that knowledge. Freire argues that this is inherently oppressive. On the contrary, education that asks students to question, solve problems, and engage in continued dialogue around what they learn, is liberatory. I’ll be transparent here – I’m making an argument that student services work very similarly. See Ch. 2 in Pedagogy of the Oppressed

It bothers me when I encounter academics who say they are here for educational equity – yet also want to be seen as the sole purveyor of knowledge (or, a certain kind of knowledge). I attended a recent meditation on the topic of “The Call-Out Culture”. In this meditation, I realized that it is far too easy (for me) to call others out.

So, I’m not focusing deeply on what is already easy for me to do. This year, I’m doing my internal work. Beyond the programs, the tasks, & to-do’s, I’m asking my “ownself”:

  • What are the ways (in which 😉 I perform academia in order to alienate others? How can I anticipate the ways that academia can alienate students and what can I do to foster a more equitable experience?
  • Are my own initiatives / educational practices / ways of providing student services inherently humanizing –
    • Do they recognize the identities of my colleagues and my students – and make space for their expertise?
    • Have I diversified my knowledge sources in order to foster more humanizing initiatives?
    • Do they implicate that someone else’s liberatory learning experience can only be found in me / my initiatives / my work / my knowledge base? If so, what can I do to rectify that?
  • In what ways have I been “influenced by the climate that generates a banking method” not just of education, but of student services as well (Freire, p. 66)?
    • As I provide student services, am I expecting that students will simply parrot back to me what I have already told them?
    • How can I engage in deeper dialogue with students about “the world as we wish” and “the world that is”?
    • Have I taken a sufficient pause – have I soaked in their wisdom about the tension between these “two worlds”?

This is not about diminishing or decreasing the value of the work that I already do. This is about a heart-mind-work check. These are questions that flow out of my personal way of doing student affairs work I’ve gotten clear on a personal conviction – if my initiative forces a student to rely on me as the “sole” anything, then I’m not empowering them. This brief reflection is about making sure that, at the very least, the experiences that students have with me – are ones that honor their experiences and the knowledge that they already hold on before they’ve encountered me.

After Viral Videos: Further Questions on SAE & Institutional Culture

I planned a lovely post about language, technology, and text messaging for your reading pleasure this week… and then a colleague in Student Affairs sent me the clip which features a bus full of SAE fraternity members engaging in an incredibly racist chant. The story and the subsequent repercussions went viral in a matter of moments.

My immediate response was too crass to be immortalized in online, public spaces. So, for the purposes of this post we’ll just say that a) I was not surprised by the clip; I have both seen and been tasked to address firsthand the racist culture that is embedded in many predominantly White sororities and fraternities, and b) my patience for these shenanigans after the absolutely disconcerting year we’ve had in terms of social justice, police brutality, implicit and explicit racism / bias in America was almost non-existent. So, I did what I always do when I’m reflecting / processing… I laid low for a bit and read up (I have posted some of my favorite articles / blog posts on the subject in the text below).

First, I’ll say that President Boren’s statement was absolutely refreshing. Far too many times, I have seen these types of behaviors downplayed, glossed over, and re-centered on the potential learning opportunities of White students while ignoring the physical, mental, and essential safety / care of the students of color that these behaviors impact [yepp, that was a run-on but I’m sayin’ it how I feel it today]. For those of you who have not yet seen President Boren’s response, pour some tea for this read (as posted on the University of Oklahoma’s Facebook page / social media presence):

To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for possessions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

President Boren

Oop! In the next 24 – 48 hours, the house was shut down, people were packing their bags, and two of the students were expelled.

But I still have questions though…

  • What is the University of Oklahoma doing in terms of educational interventions for the students who are still THERE, navigating through hate speech, discrimination, and a climate that may not be conducive to their academic or personal success. I’m glad that they have gotten rid of the fraternity and a few of the members… but what are they doing about their institutional climate? Moreover, what interventions are there / have there been from national fraternity & sorority leadership to change the culture / climate of these organizations?

    Please, let’s not act like this is all new. How many problematic parties have we seen within the last (oh I don’t know) forever years that center around denigrating and mocking people of color? How long have we known that the fabric of many of these organizations includes the explicit, open, blatant exclusion of people of color? How long have folk intensely advocated for centering the story on the learning opportunities available to students who perpetuate what is, in this case, hate speech, while on the other hand, writing off decentralized diversity statements with elusive hopes that that document will fix systemic issues within the climate of the institution? [Insert side eye here]. Now that this has come to light, my question remains, what will administrative leadership do about the institutional climate and culture? What will national Greek organizations do about the recurring instances (parties, chants, additional foolery) that can only indicate an embedded culture of hostility and racism? Because these random press releases don’t cut it and the constant state of surprise when things like this happen is absolutely astounding. The fact of the matter is, after years of these types of incidents, why are we still sitting in surprise and shock instead of finding, instilling, and systematizing some cultural competence and sensitivity (aka some “do-right” as my Grandmother says).

I can’t help but wonder how the viral nature of the video influenced decisions about what would be done short term? These type of instances happen far more than can be accessed through viral videos for public consumption. So, I’m interested to see… when the viral video “dies down”, will there be radio silence about this particular incident from administrative leadership (and if I really say it how I feel it, I’m wondering if there will be the deafening silence of those within the profession who have identified themselves as allies)?

My well wishes and best thoughts are with the Student Affairs staff at that institution, the people of color who work there, and especially the students of color who study there. Although this post represents only a few lines in the narrative, I have posted other works below that round out the story even more. Enjoy them and think critically about them:

  1. Racism in Oklahoma Frat Video Is Widespread at Colleges, Researcher Says by Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education
  2. The Side of the Oklahoma Racist Frat Story that Nobody is Talking About, Zak Cheney-Rice, Mic.com
  3. Save Our Children, Alta Mauro, https://justmamta.wordpress.com
  4. On Why Expulsion Was The Only Option For The SAE Students, Eric Mata, ericmata.wordpress.com

Image Credit: Filling their shoes from Kay Isabedra, deathtothestockphoto.com

So You Want to Be “More Diverse”: An Open Letter to Campus Ministries

It is not often that I read an open letter that is not dripping with sarcasm and nice-nastiness. So, you should know that as I write this, I’m drinking my Turmeric tea blend, and channeling all the Zen in my tone that I can muster. Yet I cannot promise that it will be as easy to swallow what needs to be said. In that respect, I invite you to get comfortable, take a breath, and if you were here, I’d offer you a cup of tea for goodwill.

For the past few years, I’ve done work within higher education & student affairs, within the realm of diversity / multicultural initiatives. Yet, I have also spent a considerable amount of time interfacing with ministries in formal / informal ways that have asked me for feedback on their campus ministry “diversity initiatives”. As a woman of color, this feedback comes from both lived experience and professional understanding. I write this open letter with those two facets in mind and invite you to explore them with me:

Most of the campus ministries I have seen (and informally advised) are predominantly White. I think it’s important to put that out early on in the letter, without yet placing value or judgement on that fact. The first time I was approached by a college ministry, I was only a first year student. I was still transitioning in my own faith & discernment processes, had written a list of campus ministries that I wanted to check out, and showed up only to feel incredibly marginalized. I attended a predominantly White institution so I was prepared for that experience in the classroom. Somehow, my adolescent mind had not connected this would be the case in campus ministry settings, as well. The metaphors were not the same. The collective understanding was vastly different. Efforts for my inclusion in the space were well-meaning, but crass, at best: would I sing them some Gospel? Would I be interested in leading the Gospel segment? Would I like to plan their diversity dinner? How should they talk to Black people? How can they include more “diverse people”? It took me a month to decide to disengage completely.

Over the years, the questions have gotten more refined, but it seems that we are collectively no less confused as to how we model diversity and inclusion within campus ministry settings. I saw this confusion as many campus ministers stood aghast, bewildered, and / or completely ignorant regarding cases like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown. I heard the shy and tentative questions for explanations (and sometimes all-out fear) regarding the responses they saw from their colleagues of color.

The issue is this: When we make diversity & inclusion our outcome without first developing multicultural competence, everyone loses. 

Seeking to increase structural diversity (i.e. the people who are participants in the campus ministry) without seeking to increase multicultural competence to honor them once they GET there will always betray a lack of forethought & process. There has to be a continual process of critical assessment & reflection, not on our numbers, but on the WAYS we think about diversity & multiculturalism. The point of this open letter is to assist in that reflection.

I. A person is not diverse. 

The initial thing that we have to understand is that diversity is not a person. One, singular person, can not be “diverse”. To ascribe to that thinking is to imply, “Everyone else is diverse except for me because my identity, presence, and culture should be, will be, and has always been primary, normal, and assumed.” Again, I say, a person (singular) is not diverse. Hurtado et al. (1999) talk about diversity in terms of a climate with different aspects which make up that climate. Those aspects are:

  • Structural – Who is there and who is represented? (Often times, many campus ministries stop there when they talk about diversity)
  • Historical Legacy of Exclusion or Exclusion – What is our history, as it pertains to integration? Who is this particular ministry set up for regarding the policies, doctrinal statements, practices, and mission?
  • Behavioral – What do our behaviors say about our lens on inclusion? What do our social interactions say about us? Who is involved? Who is not? Why?
  • Psychological – What are the (subtle and explicit) attitudes of leadership & key stakeholders that reduce and / or perpetuate stereotype, bias, and / or discrimination? What are the attitudes of our participants?

Attending to these different aspects, asking questions, critically reflecting, and making changes as needed is what allows true diversity & inclusion to take place. It is not just a matter of getting “diverse people” to your Bible study group.

II. Including a person of color on a panel about race does not necessarily show inclusion.

There’s this thing that happens when we want to “show diversity” within a setting. It’s when you see that one brown person on the cover of admissions brochures and that is supposed to represent “diversity”. It’s that one person of color they asked to be in the movie with a predominantly White cast, so we could all point and say, “See! There’s diversity here!” In campus ministries, it’s that one active participant who is either a person of color or is racially ambiguous to you, that you ask to lead the Gospel music worship segment, participate on panels about race / social justice / equity, etc. That is not appreciation for diversity. That is tokenism.

Tokenism is all about setting up an image of diversity, without considering marginalized or underrepresented voices in:

  • Shaping, crafting, and steering an overall vision for campus ministry
  • Decision-making on how campus ministry practices are run, what texts are read, what lenses influence the interpretation of sacred texts
  • Asking students of color to unpack their understandings / thoughts on the structural, psychological, behavioral, and historical aspects of diversity in your ministry

Tokenism is about taking an “out”: not learning enough about the Black lives matter to speak on it as an ally. Rather, allocating the task to a person of color to do the “heavy lifting”.  It’s rehearsing one Gospel music song or a few songs in different languages, without studying the true dynamics & nature of worship experiences in cross-cultural settings. It is a well-intentioned afterthought.

I get it. People mean well, and I get that. However, we can only address tokenism in campus ministries when we change the perspective from intent to impact. We must consider a question that columnist Jamie Utt poses in such instances: “what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?”

III. You can have structural diversity, and still be a predominantly White organization.

This is the one that takes many by surprise. In other words, you can look around the room and see people with different racial / ethnic backgrounds, but still function as a predominantly White campus ministry. This is about the distribution of power and engagement. If you look around and see representation that you think is diverse within your campus ministry students, but only have White leadership (that is unfamiliar with multicultural competence), then at its core, it is still a predominantly White organization. College ministries may do well with structural representation. However, if all of the books we are reading are from White theologians, all of the songs we sing are from White musicians, all of the social events that we plan appeal to a broader White audience, all of the ministry movie nights feature White actors, then… well… it’s still a predominantly White organization. Acknowledging this is not to bash predominantly White campus ministries. However, it is to admonish us to stand in truth and “call a thing, a thing” without charade or pretense. Being able to work through discomfort, in order to “call a thing, a thing” is absolutely essential IF your campus ministry wants to be “more diverse”. In other words, if we are taking diversity seriously in our campus ministry setting, there is no way to get around grace-filled truth telling.

In the close of this letter, I ask you to sit with whatever discomfort you may be feeling and take a deep breath. I encourage you to locate one thing within this post that sparks you toward action, reflection, or dialogue. I encourage you to reflect on what your campus ministry is doing as it pertains to this post. I encourage you to reflect on what your campus ministry is not doing as pertains to this post. Finally, I ask what stops you from doing that thing? Allow this open letter to spark dialogue and further understanding in your journey to bring your campus ministry toward authentic inclusion.

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So You Want to Be “More Diverse”: An Open Letter to Campus Ministries by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Image courtesy of Chaloemphan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pedersen, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting Diverse Learning Environments: Improving the Climate for Racial/Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. ERIC Digest.

They Said What?! – Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can be defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (Wing Sue, 2010).” These subtle snubs can creep up in the work environment in the most unlikely places.

I have both experienced and supported others through the various microaggressions that they may have faced in their work environment, in my process of navigating the workplace as a millenial Black woman. These few come to mind:

  • ideas I contributed being re-directed for attribution to one of the men in the room (either immediately or over time)
  • being called a “girl” as a professional, full time staff member
  • prominent leadership figures subtly attributing career successes to affirmative action efforts
  • assumptions of being “angry” about something when we are professionally critiquing an exclusionary policy, practice, or protocol

Through mutual support systems and networks, colleagues and I have talked about ways to navigate these instances. Do we see it as a teachable moment and a brief lesson in diversity education? Do we call for the organization to establish diversity training sessions? Do we ignore it? Do we speak on it?

Honestly, there are just as many approaches as there are individuals and identities to navigate. Most of the time, understanding what to do comes on a case-by-case basis. However, here are a few things that have helped me in the past, and I hope that they will assist you if you ever have to navigate these murky waters:

Document, document, document!

There are lessons that I’ve learned through graduate school. There are lessons that I’ve learned through professional mentors. Then, there are those ‘common sense’ lessons that I’ve learned from the village that raised me and called me to the work that I do. One of those lessons is documentation. One thing that I know to be true, is that there is a profound difference between individual microaggressions perpetuated by a colleague… and a culture that promotes, implicitly allows, or does not challenge microaggressive behaviors. You typically can “feel in your gut” which one you are dealing with. (The good news is that this gut feeling can also help you to discern which work environments will help you thrive!) If you are feeling that you have landed within a work culture that fosters microaggressive behaviors, documenting things will become absolutely key. Having a timeline allows you to examine the environment and have robust information should you need to chat with a supervisor, administrator, ombudsperson, or HR representative. Keeping this type of documentation is not unnecessary or petty. It is a data set that can inform strategic change within the workplace or organization.

Challenge it. 

I fully understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with this approach. However, as someone who is an educator & student affairs professional, this is an approach that I fall back on quite often. Of course, methods vary as audiences change: the approach is different if I am talking with students about what a microaggression is but I tend to be a little firmer if I am talking with a colleague. Since we’re talking about the workplace, we have to realize that we are all coming in with different backgrounds, experiences, and mind sets. And bias is real. Thus, creating a truly inclusive and affirming environment is a continual process.

In instances where microaggressions arise, the hope is that we can communicate supervisors, administrators, and / or HR representatives that these instances threaten the inclusivity of the environment, and thus, impede overall productivity. This process might include addressing the matter directly, challenging what was said, and offering clarity (i.e. asking my age in a board meeting is inappropriate for the following reasons…).

Though the methods vary, this is an approach that many can use, if it’s their choice. For clarity’s sake, I am, by no means, suggesting that every microaggression is a teachable moment. Here’s why: many times, we ask those within marginalized communities to be the primary teachers and educators on that community. This can take up a lot of cognitive energy that you want to use for the actual work that you are doing (Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007). While this is a work that I am committed to as a multicultural student affairs professional, I do not blithely suggest that this is something that everyone should take on, if they do not feel comfortable. Please understand that creating these teachable moments with your colleagues or co-workers is something that you are empowered to choose… or not choose.

Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time or energy for a lesson about microaggressions. In those cases, I ask clarifying questions in hopes that these questions will help people to think through what they just said or did. It can be as simple as, “Help me understand what you are really saying,” or, “To me, your statement implies _______. Help me understand how you’re interpreting what you just said”. For example, in instances where my speech choices are attributed to being “a credit to my race”, or “not speaking like” a person of color, I typically ask them to help me understand what they mean: “What made you say that? How are you defining the speech patterns of persons of color? Are these speech patterns all synonymous?” (I won’t lie… I’ve thrown in “I didn’t know you studied sociolinguistics! Will you tell me more about that?” as appropriate). Many times, asking for more information allows people the space to process through their own words, thoughts, and actions… and the implications of it all.

Facilitate meaningful connections within the workplace.

If there were any one approach that I had to stress, this one would be it. The three that are above will be contingent upon your personal circumstances, ideology, and comfort levels. However, facilitating meaningful connections within the workplace is important, regardless of the circumstance. There have been instances where I have experienced microaggressions (and / or just general discrimination) and I have accessed supervisors, colleagues, and co-workers to have those ‘close the door’ conversations. In those spaces, they told me about the organization’s history, who I needed to talk to, and in some cases, what approach I needed to take. These connections came from within my field and outside of my field. They are the people who invested in my success and who believe that workplaces could and should be inclusive and affirming. Start branching out to make those meaningful connections.

Understand that sometimes, self-care trumps all.

It’s no secret: we put in work! And many times, our work requires us to be present and effective for the long term. So, we have to be diligent about paying attention to our own self care when faced with microaggressions in the work place.
The thing about microaggressions is that they subtly challenge the core of your dignity and brilliance, because of your race, ethnicity, and gender. They are not always easy to shrug off, dismiss, or confront with colleagues (and /or especially those who might be in higher leadership positions). So, in those instances, think about the ways in which you can care for yourself, right there, in that moment.

Self-care looks different for everyone. If you need to take some breaths after being the target of a microaggression, do that. If you need to talk it through with one of your connections, do that. If you find that these types of instances keep coming up on a regular and consistent basis, and you can afford to do so without considerable cost to your socioeconomic reality, then self care might also look like facilitating a search for a new work environment. I’ve done this before and trust me, it comes with both the pros & the cons of transitions – as well as the ever-present understanding that microaggressions at the intersections of race & gender are prevalent for Black women in the workplace (Crenshaw, 1993; Harris Perry, 2013).

An older version of this piece has also been posted on the Black Career Women’s Network.
Image courtesy of createherstock.com

Resources (not linked)

Fries-Britt, Sharon, and Kimberly Griffin (2007). “The Black box: How high-achieving Blacks resist stereotypes about Black Americans.” Journal of College Student Development 48.5: 509-524.

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They Said What?! Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.