Week 7: “Always the tone of surprise.”

“The privilege of being able to go to a library and find a book that has a character on the cover that looks like you. A book that has a story that is about you or as simple as watching a commercial and finding a product to shampoo your hair. To learn about that from watching TV, which is not an experience that I have. I have to take other measures to find out about different products for my hair, as a black woman. I don’t have the privilege of just watching network TV and just seeing a commercial that is talking about people like me, who have hair like me.”

–Sonja Cherry-Paul: Dismantling Racism in Education

I’ve had a lot to think about lately, but I’ll focus on this week’s topic. The readings have been primarily about where diversity fits in higher education and how to navigate the inevitable minefield that is created when a diverse group of people come together to figure out what it means for them and their institution. However, my intuitive response to the readings and the word “diversity” is a visceral, gut-wrenching realization–a reminder, really–of my difference, my Otherness. Being a young woman of color in higher education is both an incredible opportunity to effect change from within and a daily dose of prejudice from all sides: because I am young, female, and nonwhite, I contend with three different forms of bias at a minimum. Because of my background, I had to grow up quickly to grasp the implications of my embodied experience (e.g., a nonwhite, female body moving through primarily white, male spaces) and every possible snap judgement that could be made about me as a result. For as long as I have been able to read the news, I have understood that being who I am actively works against my safety, my bodily autonomy, my freedom, and my peace of mind, all of which are basic human rights that are by no means guaranteed to me.

But that’s what happens when bias is at its worst. In my everyday life, bias is more subtle than potentially fatal police encounters and gender-based violence. Whenever I think of how stereotypes have affected me in my daily life, I can’t help but remember the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in which Hermione is shocked–SHOCKED!–that Ron is capable of stepping up to the plate to do something brilliant, like saving the life of Nymphadora Tonks (one of the best characters in the entire series, if I say so myself). It happens less often now that I’m older and have the look of someone who spends more time in the library than anywhere else, but it still happens: I’m in a place that People Like Me™ don’t stereotypically go or I’m dong something that “we don’t do” or that’s “for [insert literally any other demographic here] people” (and I’m usually the Only One there anyway, which always raises a few eyebrows), and someone feels the need to comment on it.

Having read the articles on Difficult Discussions and what to do if a subject gets “too hot” for one or more parties in the class, I have real concerns about what could happen in such a scenario, precisely because of my background and the potential for things to become…hairy. I have real concerns about how to navigate a tricky subject that may be “too hot” for me. I have real concerns full stop.

To look at these conversations as hard conversations is one thing, but to look at these conversations that are going to solidify friendships, to look at these conversations that are going to strengthen professional bonds, to look at these conversations and say these are conversations that are going to sharpen my abilities to teach kids, I think that’s the win.

–Cornelius Minor: Dismantling Racism in Education

17 thoughts on “Week 7: “Always the tone of surprise.”

  1. I appreciate your last post on topics that are “too hot” and difficult discussions. Someone else wrote about how we as future professors are expected to act and try to diffuse the a hot situations or navigate through difficult discussions. One those moments arise, I also believe it’s our responsibility to address them as the instructor. Doing so not only addresses the situation but it is also a learning experience for our students to handle future situations. I think even if we as professors don’t really know how to handle the situation we must do something. Instead of always asking ourselves “why didn’t I do anything?”

    1. That is an excellent point. I definitely have concerns about what might happen in a situation like that, but as you said, I am the adult in the room (even if they’re all over 18), so I will bear much of the responsibility for how things turn out, which means that however “hot” things get, I’ll have to keep a cool head (or at least, be very good at pretending like I can).

  2. Hi Jasmine,

    I have a lot of thoughts about a lot of the topics you touched on, but I wanted to start by saying that your concerns are valid.

    I think your post and Jake’s both discussed the concept of conversations about diversity and how they come at a cost especially to people who identify with marginalized groups or communities. When we constantly talk about the importance of diversity (especially when those conversations are prioritized over those about representation or inclusion), they can serve to highlight differences rather than have the intended effect of creating a community of different people coming together.

    I think it’s especially damaging when the onus of raising these issues or explaining different experiences is placed on those marginalized people. I can think of a number of classes in college where 1. there was only one black student and 2. the (often white) faculty member turned to that student to be the face and voice of the non-white perspective. I’m also thinking of times when issues of diversity and inclusion, or especially explaining the difference between privilege and equity, fall to women of color in online conversations. These women then have to not only deal with the constant stress and struggle of belonging to multiple marginalized communities while trying to carry on and further their own businesses/careers, but then they have to take extra time away from their work to explain to some Twitter troll how their experience is inherently different than a wealthy, white, etc. etc. person.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with care, concern and humor.

    1. I am honored by your comment. It’s definitely true that those of us who are the lone minority end up being the spokespeople for our marginalized group(s), and while it’s definitely extra work on our part and not really fair that we have yet another weight on our shoulders, I have found that in cases like last Wednesday’s class, bearing that additional burden can be the only thing that initiates a productive conversation (it was a heavy emotional toll and I felt VERY vulnerable, but it got people to stop, listen, and at least attempt to understand my viewpoint which is the goal). It was heartening to see people in places of privilege finally speak up about their fear of broaching this topic, and the hope is that those who felt empowered to speak in class will continue to do so in elsewhere, thus making more spaces welcoming and less fraught for those who are marginalized.

  3. Hey Jasmine,
    This is a very interesting post. Having a bias creates many negative experiences in everyday life. Among other things, one thing that I think is important is the value of the feeling is lost. With every bias that one has, they are creating a void of two positive feelings that could have happened in the absence of it. First, and the important one, is the one for whom the bias is there (creating a negative feeling in them) and the second, is their own, where they could have potentially experienced a positive one. I think we are all made of feelings, some positive, some negative, some strong and some weak. If the positive feelings are strong, it has much more value to one’s own life and that of the society. I believe the discussion is important and you give the perfect examples of how to have a brilliant discussion on any topic with your blog posts – some jokes, some fun and yet pass on the important points.

  4. Thank you for your post. I identify with the feeling of otherness that you describe as a female in a male dominated discipline. This past week in particular, I have gotten very tired of my male peers mansplaining my research to me. In the field of agriculture (see what I did there?), we don’t often talk about diversity or inclusivity. We just focus on the science, but I think that we need to have these conversations to address the implicit bias that we experience, otherwise, nothing will change.

    1. I always appreciate a good pun! Well played!
      Your comment sticks out to me because it reminds me of the other fields where the discussion about bias is being swept under the rug or is simply not on anyone’s radar because most (or all) of the professionals in the field come from one group. It can be an insidious practice because it creates this feedback loop that encourages and perpetuates bias and exclusion (“We haven’t got a bias problem! We all get along fine! We’re all [insert demographic here], so we see eye-to-eye…and we’re all in agreement that there’s no bias here, and thus no need for diversity initiatives. Oh, look at that, we’ve got consensus!” rinse and repeat). Computer music has worked a lot like this for decades; it’s mostly composed of white men (slipped in a little music pun for ya), so the conversation about race or even gender in the field of has only begun to pick up steam in the last few years.

      1. Nice! You’ve got some major music puns! In my experience, the tone of the conversation goes along the lines of “We don’t have a problem with [pick any prejudice of your choice] here. Look! We hired that ONE person from that particular group, so we’re all good”. Usually pointing out that only having 1 person that doesn’t look like you doesn’t make you diverse is followed up with comments to the effects of “I would hire more people from that group, if qualified candidates applied” while failing to realize that (a) the lack of diverse candidates indicates a larger issue that we need to address and (b) your implicit biases may be influencing who you would call a “qualified” candidate. I read a study that found faculty were more likely to doubt a female candidates accomplishments than a male candidate’s. This was a controlled study where the accomplishments WERE THE SAME. This line of thinking also fails to acknowledge the struggles any minority faces even once they are employed. At the university I attended for my Master’s, I watched one of the female faculty get an incredibly inappropriate comment on her student evaluation that would never have been said to a man. Students always complained that they could never understand the woman from Nepal, never mind the fact that she was happy to repeat something if they asked her to. One of my fellow graduate students was a woman of color, and she had to deal with countless inappropriate remarks and people always touching her hair. I had one of my own students catcall me, get mad when I ignored him, and then offended when I told him that was inappropriate. All of this happened without the Department Head acknowledging we had an issue with our diversity, or taking any steps to facilitate conversations. After all, we have a couple of people who are not white men born in America, so we are good on diversity.

        1. Wow. That is so not okay. I am sorry you and your colleagues had to deal with that.
          Those are precisely the sorts of situations that concern me. How do we have conversations with the perpetrators of those blatantly inappropriate acts without them stonewalling or escalating their behavior? I think that’s the next step.

          1. The thing that got me the most is the student, when I called him out on his behavior, was completely dumbfounded that his actions were inappropriate. I’m not saying that this particular student would not have acted that way knowing it was sexual harrassment, but I think it highlights the issue that so many people are ignorant of how their actions affect others (Which is ridiculous because how are people adults and not know what harrassment is?). I think maybe the best approach is to try to have a polite, but firm, conversation about why their actions are inappropriate. It’s exhausting to keep your cool long enough to do it, but hopefully it will slowly reduce the number of these incidences.

  5. Thank you, Jasmine, for your excellent post. Your last paragraph makes me think of myself when encountering a “hot topic”. Will the implicit bias make us different in defining the “hot topic”? Will that make us unfair with our students? How could we recognize and overcome this implicit bias?

    1. I suppose we won’t truly know until we’re in the moment and our character is tested. I’d like to think that exposure to the people and concepts from this class will generate a different and better outcome than we would have had otherwise. Forewarned is forearmed (in a manner of speaking).

  6. Jasmine- thank you for your valuable insights and contributions, I appreciate any opportunity that I get to read blog posts that are incredibly thought provoking and force me to question my role in the “majority.” For the sake of honesty, let me clarify that more often than not, I do not catch myself wondering or worrying about how I will handle a situation that is “too hot.” Not often do I watch movies and notice implicit (or sometimes explicit) bias when it comes to not only gender, but my race. And frankly, not often do I read the news and question just how guaranteed my basic human rights are. I have this privilege because I am white. Although I too am a female, being a white female still puts me in a position, whether by choice or not, above many others in society. However, in reading your blog post, specifically your last paragraph, I was really pushed into thinking more intently about my specific role in society, and more specifically my role in the majority. What I realized is that, as your final quote suggests, not only is it imperative to engage in these difficult conversations, but it is imperative to listen intently when having these difficult conversations and not listen to respond or defend, but to actually understand. In doing this, not only will friendships and professional bonds strengthen, but so too will knowledge that can be carried into the future and future generations. In doing this, perhaps one day, sooner rather than later, we can all engage in conversation where the concern for things getting “too hot” is subdued. Again, thank you for your insights, I am very appreciative of your blog post this week!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I think these conversations are crucial to getting to that point. It can be uncomfortable for all parties involved, but the rewards far outweigh the discomfort of broaching the subject. For a lot of my friends (be they white, well-connected, wealthy, male or otherwise in a position of privilege), even asking the simplest questions is frightening, so there’s also a great fear of conflict for them. It’s rare for us to move beyond that point because the fear is difficult to negotiate: one can never know exactly which question is “the wrong one”, or which phrase will “get them into trouble” with me or someone like me. One of the best litmus tests for any of my friendships is observing how comfortable they when they enter into that tense space with me. Those who pass come out with a better understanding of how things are for people who are not like them. Those that do not usually come out having refused to listen or are red in the face from shouting me down and/or insisting that they are not bigots. Long story short: listening is good, shouting at people in order to get your point across is bad.

  7. Hello Jasmine!
    Great post if we had to nominate tow posts, yours would be my second. You have described the exact feeling I had going through the readings when you said “the word “diversity” is a visceral, gut-wrenching realization–a reminder, really–of my difference, my Otherness”. It is because of weak English that I could not express my feeling in these words but that is what the reading does to you when you are black or from a minority community. And yeah absolutely, none of the basic human rights that you have sited are and to my guess are far from being guaranteed. This is unfortunate and I think the only way to deal with is just to stay who you are and trust on yourself because the mindset, implicate bias of certain is here and will remain intact whatever the energy people will bring for more inclusive environments. Thank you

    1. I’m glad to know that I am not alone in feeling that way, and I agree that the only way to respond is to be who I am regardless of any biases against me. 🙂

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