A Year of Change: Talking about Racism on Campus

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The year is now 2016.  When making New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a good idea to look back on the previous year.  To the goals that were achieved and to those that fell short.  Perhaps most important is to analyze those issues for their shortcomings and how to make better strides in the new year. The same is true for the conversation about racism on campus.   In 2015, much of the higher education world looked to Mizzou where Tim Wolfe resigned.  We looked to Yale about emails over Halloween costumes and issues.  We saw Claremont McKenna, where the dean of students and junior class president resigned.  Then came Justice Scalia, who suggested that black students should be attending slower-track schools. The state of racial tension on campus is high, and if you haven’t noticed, you haven’t been paying attention.  It seems that all of a sudden everyone is talking about race and racism on campus. Then comes the realization that this is not sudden, and that it is a conversation that’s been ignored on a large scale. These conversations have been happening constantly by our students of color—in one form or another—for a long time.  Now, perhaps more than ever, it’s time that we take a deep breath and enter the conversation.  Not because of the current events surrounding the issue.  But because supporting all of our students is long overdue. Now is the time to stop saying “tomorrow”. Here are some things to keep in mind when coming to the table for this discussion.

Make the Decision to Arrive

Richard Okello and Louis B. Ward discuss in their blog post titled Concerned #SAPro 2015 that, “Black students show up daily in the arena—on campus, bravely facing the many assaults on their ways of being.”   It is only right, it is only fair that we do the same.  That we arrive every day and take notice of our surroundings and deal with them.

Check Your Privilege

This conversation is not an easy one.  It’s even more difficult when you walk into the conversation defensive.  Perhaps the best way to start lowering these defenses is to recognize our own privileges.  I write this article as a cishet white female who has a master’s degree.  I have to be aware that I have not experienced most of the issues presented in these conversations.  I also have to be aware that I am in a position that allows me to, and demands that, I use my position to help my students.  In any way possible.  Not every administrator that shows up should be someone of color, nor should they be left out of the conversation. Part of recognizing and checking this privilege is realizing that I am not often called upon to have these conversations.  However, I need to check in and have these conversations when they come up.  

Open Your Eyes and Ears, Not Your Mouth

It’s common to get defensive when students start talking about how they don’t feel safe on campus. Our students have thoughts and feelings informed by their experiences on and off of our campuses. If we do not pause to hear them or validate them, we are not doing our jobs.

Educate Yourself

Have you been following #BlackLivesMatter or #StayMadAbby on Twitter?  Do you know what happened at Mizzou?  Do you know who Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Bree Newsome are?   Do you know about the conversation happening on your own campus? About how to get resources, and what your school does to include students and employees of color?  It’s not the job of the multi-cultural office to keep everyone on campus updated.  It is our personal responsibility to be educated about the world around us. This way, we can have meaningful conversations and begin progress.

Learn How To Apologize—and Mean it

If you apologize to people but there are conditions to your apology, then you probably need a crash course in how to properly apologize.  Franchesca Ramsey’s (@Chescaleigh) YouTube video Getting Called Out: How to Apologize is a gem, and something people need to learn how to do in general.  This is in here, because too many times, we hear “I’m sorry if…” and the student’s feelings and experiences are diminished.  Learn how to appropriately apologizeand mean it.  Then, seek a solution.

Be Open and Honest About Change

Students are calling for transparency in university policies.  Rather than worry that they’re criticizing your institution, take it as an opportunity to make your school better.  If something is wrong with our policies, we need to know about it so we can have the conversation on how to fix them.  By the same token, be honest about how change works at your school, and then perhaps take on the task of helping students implement change.

Challenge and Support

Every day, we challenge our students and support them in their goals.  Be more intentional about this and contemplate how you are doing so.  Also, challenge yourself to become better at having this conversation and becoming a better active bystander.

Become an Advocate

It’s not enough to be an ally and stand silently as our students show up every day,trying to make campus safer.  Depending on where we are, we need to start having the conversations and making the changes.  Things will not sort themselves out, nor will they become better overnight.  But, with faculty and administrators who care enough to say “we see you,” and “this is unjust,” then perhaps we can begin the road to equity. This is not a complete list.  It may never be complete, in discussing how to have these difficult conversations.  But I hope that it’s a start.  Please share what you or your school is doing to make your campus a better and safer place for students of color.    

Student Engagement Guide

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