I have been asked several times over the last few month, what I “do.” I teach. I get the full gamut of reactions when I tell people “social justice and diversity.” Everything from wrinkled noses to blank stares, to wondering why a middle class Caucasian woman wouldn’t just stick to English or Communications. I wrote the blog post below in November of 2015 for “Teaching Academic” which is a blog hosted by my university. Hopefully this will shed some light on what I “do.”
No Time For Tolerance
Tolerance Is Not Enough
Too often, we look at diversity with a superficial mindset or view it as a panacea. We talk of “tolerance” and think that we have contributed meaningfully to a conversation, yet we do not act. Tolerance is not enough – it is too passive. The word itself implies distaste for something, yet not a strong enough emotion to take action. We must move to a culture of accepting, embracing, and empowering our students and each other. I want to take a moment to ask you to reflect on who you are and how you reached this point in your lives. Did you have assistance? Was your achievement based solely on your individual talents and aspirations? I challenge you to think critically about these questions and reflect for a moment on what a diverse environment is to you.
Critically analyze how you have benefited from your position in society, or conversely, how you have experienced minoritization within society. To experience the benefits of the privileged group, you do not have to be actively oppressing another element of society; this distinction is important to remember. That is the tricky thing about power and privilege – you benefit because they exist, not because you actively engage in detrimental behaviors towards others. As a woman of Caucasian background and middle class upbringing, I am in both the dominant group (middle class and Caucasian) as well as the minoritized groups (female). Many of us will find that we have overlapping roles (intersectionality) where we enjoy some benefits of privilege while also experiencing some of the effects of oppression. For an interesting perspective on privilege to share with students (and to examine for yourself), watch this video by BuzzFeed Yellow. (also linked here.)
Power as Privilege
Why focus on power and privilege, rather than race, ethnicity or religion, the excellent sub categories that seem to have devoured television news as of late? Because decisions are made by those who hold power, those who are privileged. These power groups are the gatekeepers of our society. They determine the opportunities that arise through industry, curriculum in P-12 schools, and even the type and quality of healthcare to which we have access. Power and privilege are the forces that drive our experiences within the larger society. The PBS Newshour clip, linked here, demonstrates just how easy it is to fall into a mindset of priviledge. The clip is alarming in many ways, but primarliy how easily the “privileged” group changed. Just because we do not perpetuate acts of racism or oppression, does not mean that we do not benefit from systemic and institutional mechanisms that govern the behaviors and attitudes of our society. We cannot rest, thinking that because we do not spread hate, we have no action to take or responsibility to bear. We, as a society, must engage in a dialogue that deconstructs what we think we know and reframes concepts of equality and equity.
Equality, the state of being equal – especially in rights, status and opportunities — would be the ideal state of a culture, in that all members of the society have the same opportunity. Equity, the quality of being fair and impartial, is simply an extension of the concept, whereby all members of the society have access to an equal opportunity.
Ultimately, we must help our students understand what it means to live and work in a diverse society. We must provide opportunities for them, through the curriculum to build on their experience base and learn to navigate a world that is wonderfully rich and brimming with colors, flavors and ideas that may be different than their own. In my own classes I require students to spend 10 hours in a setting that is dynamically different than their own cultural background. Students must keep field notes (this also reinforces research practices) related to their experience and file their field notes with me. Students must spread their hours over a minimum of three visits. This is orchestrated to provide multiple views into the same setting, as well as give the students the opportunity to interact with participants. Experiences can include religious services (the Baptist to Methodist conversion doesn’t count – it must be DYNAMICALLY different), service opportunities that benefit the homeless or less fortunate, elder care settings, ethnically diverse settings like the Chinese Cultural Center in Atlanta, etc. The options are endless and all experiences are guaranteed to engage and enlighten. You are not going to convert someone that refuses to be enlightened, but you are going to give them the ability to learn to interact with others in a respectful way and to reflect on the experience with a critical, and more informed, eye. You may even impart the lesson that we are all more similar than we are different. Ultimately, the goal of this activity is to teach students respect for self and others, not to create activists.
Gatekeepers of the Future
We as a college community have a rare opportunity to chart our own course, determine the values that we want to exhibit, and embrace all students who share their time and talents with us: to create a community of acceptance. We are the gatekeepers to our future world. I encourage you to empower your students to value this by teaching them what it means to be caring, empathetic humans who are also successful professionals – educate the whole student. Teach them to be scholars, to be critical thinkers who have the ability to use our lessons and interactions as the building blocks to a better world. Model for them what it means to be educators who are inclusive of all backgrounds and persuasions in your classes. I challenge you to explore your own biases (everyone has them, and it is normal) and work to mitigate them. We have the ability to transform our campus community and contribute to the communities that surround each of our campuses in a very significant way. Promote acceptance, as tolerance is the way of the past.