This week, I turned to dealing with incidences of ‘local’ discrimination. I asked students to read these guidelines on how to challenge oppressive moments before class, with the goal of instilling the idea that it is not enough for one to not engage in racist or sexist behavior, but one must also respond to such acts on the behalf of the oppressed group.
I think something that is difficult for members of the dominant group to understand is that while any given racist or sexist incident can be written off (‘ignore it’, ‘treat the offender with the disdain they deserve’), for those in minority and underrepresented groups, these incidents can happen on a daily basis. They build up to create an oppressive environment that is unwelcoming, at best, and threatening at worse. In the university context, this environment supports the stereotypes that cause quantifiable reduction in academic performance. (I also asked students to read this overview of stereotype threat.)
At OSU on Monday, we were reminded of the impact of constant, background oppressive moments during a student-organized speak out for students of color. Students bravely spoke in front of a mostly white audience of 500 about their daily lived experience on campus and how the daily micro-aggressions rise to make them not feel safe and invoke ideas of arming oneself in self-defense. Unfortunately, but not surprising, at least to me, the daily acts of racism were not limited to coming from fellow students. One student spoke about an instructor identifying black people by the n-word; another identified undocumented workers as illegal people and yet another, in teaching a Spanish language class, led a discussion that justified Cortés’ conquering of Mexico.
So, last Friday, I had my graduate students break into small groups of ~5. Each group was given a scenario describing a real incident of sexism or racism that has happened at OSU or another institution that I have been at. I will list some of these incidents here that are sufficiently deanonymized, already publicly known, or that happened to me; that is, those that I feel I have the right to publish online:
- A female student raises her hand in a tutorial (recitation) session and asks a question. A TA, instead of answering the student’s question says “Little girl, you will have to work a lot harder to keep up with the men in the class.”
- A small group of graduate students are talking informally about their job prospects. One student says to a female student “well, you don’t have to worry, you’ll get a job through affirmative action.”
- Graffiti has appeared in multiple bathrooms in KEC. The graffiti encourages violence against minorities and uses racial slurs.
- In a small group with several graduate students and one faculty member, the faculty member indicates that the black student in the group was admitted because he was black.
Each group was asked to brainstorm ways in which they would respond to these situations if they were, for example, a fellow student, a TA, or simply a member of the community. After 15-20 minutes of small group discussion, we went from group to group, sharing the incidence each group discussed and their ideas on responses.
There was some thoughtful discussion on when is the best time to respond, with some (possibly often valid) concern that responding in the moment could, in certain situations, make matters worse. We also discussed, in the graffiti example, whether one should draw attention to it, so that people know this kind of thing happens, or if one should quietly remove it, to minimize the damage it does. As with many things in the class, there isn’t a yes or no answer. (Teaching algorithms is so much easier.) I did, however, encourage students to report incidents, no matter how small they think they are, to the Office of Equity and Inclusion so that they can help determine how serious the matter is and whether it belongs to a pattern of behavior on campus.
I highly recommend this kind of activity. I think it is very helpful to (a) hear about bigoted moments (b) imagine what it would be like for these kinds of things to happen on a daily basis and (c) prepare oneself to respond as an ally. In the incidences of sexism that I have suffered, I felt utterly alone as those around me failed to respond. I am hoping that with a little preparation, our graduate students will have the confidence to speak out against bigotry. On the other side, I have also felt utterly unprepared, in the past, to respond to sexist comments. I have had one student request that we have a short meeting for women in EECS to workshop how they could respond to sexist comments and behavior, which hopefully will happen next quarter. OSU offers a retreat called Racial Aikido that helps students of color learn how to respond to racism that was referred to positively on Monday’s speak out session. It is interesting that students of color are encouraged to spend two days learning how to respond to racism and other students are not expected to spend any time learning to not dish it out.