By: Suzette Walden Cole, CAMPUSPEAK Speaker
Have you noticed an uptick in the number of incidents on campus involving hate speech and bias incidents, including racism, transphobia, anti-immigrant, etc.? Has an incident happened on your campus? In your fraternity/sorority or other organization to which you belong? Has it happened to someone you know? Or have you directly experienced an incident?
BuzzFeed News reported on September 27, 2017, and shared they explored over 400 alleged incidents reported to the Documenting Hate project, a database ProPublica established to capture information about hate crimes and bias incidents. Through interviews, police reports, public statements and media coverage, BuzzFeed News could confirm 154 of those incidents on more than 120 campuses across the country since the 2016 election. There was no rhyme or reason to any one type of institution or locality. Public, private, ivy-league, community colleges, institutions large and small have seen these types of incidents manifest. Before you run out and organize a campaign, let’s reflect on a few things.
Be careful about being “color-blind” – no, I’m not talking about the legal definition.
As I’ve traveled the country and spent time with students, I’ve heard a growing number of people begin to say things like, “I don’t see color, Suzette. I see the person.” Well, Pumpkins, let’s break down the wrongness of that statement. Research shows, “it is nearly impossible not to notice race, especially the physical features of people of color” (Sue, 2015). In fact, “of all the dimensions of social categorization, psychologists overwhelmingly conclude that racial categorization and recognition are among the quickest and most automatic cognitive processing responses made by individuals” (Ito & Urland, 2003).
More importantly, when you say that, you’re essentially saying to individuals who identify as people of color that you don’t see them for who they are as humans. You’re saying, whether intentional or not, that you aren’t recognizing those issues that impact people of color because of that identity.
Commitments to diversity require self-reflection.
In distinguishing between diversity and inclusion, Verna Myers offered, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I would add that it’s being able to dance in one’s own, authentic style. It’s imperative that we spend time in self-reflection if we want to show up as an ally, partner, or champion in the social justice arena. Think about who you spend the most time with and who spends the most time with you. How much do you share in common with those individuals? What’s different? Have you thought about your own identities and whether they come with privilege?
As a White, Christian, heterosexual, married, cisgen, native American-English speaker, I have a number of identities that come with privilege. For our purposes, privilege is the concept that there are advantages and opportunities that come to you because of your identity. Or, I use the definition that privilege is the idea that something is not a problem because it’s not a problem for you. It would be easy for me to go through life thinking that if you work hard, then the world is full of possibilities. While that is true to a certain extent, there are other identities that I have which place me in a marginalized group. I am a woman, was abused, experienced sexual harassment, grew up in a low-income area, and was the first in my immediate family to achieve a bachelor’s degree.
Understanding yourself provides the gateway to recognize potential for unconscious bias and places where you make assumptions. Engaging in this work increases our ability to recognize when voices are missing, or when people don’t feel able to show up as their authentic selves. If you move through the cycle, then you more freely engage in conversations to ensure a greater level of inclusion. You cannot be committed to diversity and not have done your own work to discover your biases and knowledge gaps.
Are you granting passive acceptance?
When was the last time you explored your personal say-do gaps? If you say that you value diversity and inclusion, you see yourself as an ally, and/or you consider yourself “woke,” are you consistent in that space? Scroll through your Snapchat story, Vine videos, Instagram, Twitter, or posts to other social media forums. Think about the jokes made in your presence that maybe you’ve laughed off. Have there been times when you’ve seen something and not said something?
Say-do gaps are where our actions directly conflict with the words we use to describe our values. About 10 years ago, I remember being in Denver, CO, for a conference. I went for a run downtown with one of my closest friends and colleague. She is one of the proudest African-American women I know. She is unafraid and unapologetic. We spent a lot of time discussing race and equity issues at the institution where we both worked, and our mutual experiences after attending the same graduate school. While running, a White, homeless man yelled the n-word at her as we passed by him. I distinctly recall that moment. We both said nothing to the man, nor did we speak for the next block. I remember she stopped. I stopped. She said, “I think that’s an all-time low.” I stood there listening. I waited. She teared up. I hugged her. She got angry. I listened as she shared what it meant to her to have that happen. After some time passed, I apologized for also freezing in the moment. I could have said something and didn’t. I granted passive acceptance. It was a say-do gap moment for me. It wasn’t her responsibility to address that behavior in the moment. I had more privilege in that space. I should have been the one to say something.
We all experience say-do gaps. Those moments don’t necessarily define your character. However, what you do next when you realize their existence – that’s a different story. Freeze is a natural response to stress or conflict. We can strengthen our ability to show up differently in similar circumstances by spending time thinking about what we could/should say in those moments. Sitting down and thinking through the last week, tracking moments when you found yourself in a space where you let something “slide”, and considering how you might handle that differently. You see people are watching you. Those for whom you want to be an ally need to see your consistency. When you’re silent it speaks volumes.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, welcome to what it feels like to be “awoken” to the issues that students from marginalized backgrounds feel, often every day, likely on your campus. With Halloween right around the corner, there will likely be opportunities for you to put these concepts into practice. Don’t wait for an incident to happen on your campus for you to move to action. Be ready. Remember, we are all works in progress.
Learn more about Suzette Walden Cole and her programs at campuspeak.com/walden-cole.