AACUSS Talks March

Author: Kewoba Carter

Another March has come and gone, and now we can reflect on a particularly important day in March.  And I don't mean St Patrick's Day, although I continue to be amazed at the different gradients of green that decorate our campuses every year without fail.  March 21 is the International Day for the elimination of Racial Discrimination.  The UN observes this day to remind us all that "everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, without distinction of race or any other kind" (UnitedNations, 2018)

Fifty-eight years ago, police opened fire on apartheid protestors in Sharpville South Africa killing 69 people.  From our historical perspective, most of us will call this incident appalling and unacceptable.  Yet here we are in 2018, and students who identify as minorities often report incidents of discrimination and exclusion based on race.  As part of the conversation, we would be remiss to ignore students who don't identify as minorities, yet also say they feel discriminated against and unfairly treated. 

Race relations on our campuses have never been simple and straightforward.  Recognizing that more needs to be done, institutions have taken several steps to explore and implement diversity and inclusion programs on their campuses.  This often takes the form of group workshops and information sessions.  While many of them are important and helpful in starting conversations, we often struggle to continue these discussions.  Hearing the word 'micro aggression' is one thing, understanding how it plays out in day to day activities is quite another.   For many of our students, their post-secondary institutions may be the first time they are learning and working alongside peers who are from different ethnic backgrounds.  It may be their very first time realizing that their style of writing assignments, preparing group presentations, choosing what to eat, what sports to play,  music to listen to, is radically different from the student they are sitting next to.  At best this could lead to small misunderstandings.  At worst it could result in re-enforced stereotypes, social media bullying, intentional exclusion, and violence.

So how can we in Student Affairs and Student Services support our students as they navigate race relations while pursuing their academic goals?  How do we create inclusive environments for our increasingly diverse student body?

As with all things in the post secondary world, there is no simple answer.  A complex, multi-layered problem requires a complex and multi-layered response.  After implementing diversity and inclusion programs, we need to follow up with applying a critical race theory lens to the great work we are already doing.  We must further seek to make changes through that lens.  The following are strategies that I've learned to apply:


1.        Recognize my own biases when I plan programs and workshops for students.  It's very natural for us to do what we already know.   If I am tasked with organizing a series of spring/summer tutoring workshops, I might at first plan them on days and times that work for my schedule.  But then I have to take a step back and ask myself, "Do these days conflict with important days of other cultures?" I could have unknowingly planned a workshop on Eid or the Summer Solstice, days that are very important for Muslim students and Indigenous students respectively.  By checking my bias, I can structure programs that are more accessible to a wider audience.


2.       Listen to students' stories, without interjecting my own.  Many of us interact with students on a daily basis, whether it be through advising appointments, health consultations, front desk support etc.  We listen to their many questions, triumphs and complaints.  We have to interpret what they are saying and then provide them with advice.  However, we can so easily make assumptions that fit our world view.  For example, if a student's parents constantly accompany them to  advising appointments, I could assume that the student simply doesn't assume responsibility for their academics and leave it at that.  I am drawing from my own experiences to reach that conclusion.  After all how many times have I heard my next door neighbour casually talk about how she is the one to follow up with her daughter's school since her daughter always forgets?

But then again, I could listen to the student and I may very well find out that from her cultural context, parents have always taken an intrusive approach in their child's education up to the post-secondary level.  I could 'park 'my own experience and try to understand and appreciate the student's experience.  Then I could improve my advising practices to ensure that I properly communicate to the parents as well as the student, ensuring that they do not feel excluded and the student by extension is more comfortable with the conversation.


3.       Recognize that there is a lot going on that I don't see.  Campuses are huge and ever-changing,  and there are lots of conversations and events taking place.  No human being is privy to everything that happens in and outside the classroom.  Yet when students of colour come forward and talk about their experiences, they can be so easily dismissed.  Racialized students are often told they are "too sensitive", or "XXX didn't meant that".  We must remember that as faculty and staff, we do not experience the campus in the way racialized students do.  But just because we never encountered micro-aggressions personally, doesn't mean they don't exist.   When we have privilege, it is very difficult for us to identify it because it's something we never had to think about.  So instead of dismissing the concerns of our students, we need to actively listen and acknowledge their experiences.  We can then proceed to explore what we can do to ensure those experiences do not occur in the future.


I would encourage everyone to read Heather Doyle's August 2017 message for more resources on Allyship.    As we work together to make our campuses more inclusive, we should not be daunted.  Rather we should embrace the road ahead and continue making progress towards the goal of building safer, supportive campuses.