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Swept Under the Rug: How to Overcome Years of Untouched Bias-Related Incidents

Posted By Alex Wehrenberg | he, him, his | The College of New Jersey, Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Swept Under the Rug: How to Overcome Years of Untouched Bias-Related Incidents

Posted By Alex Wehrenberg | he, him, his | The College of New Jersey

 

We’ve got a problem on our hands. A big one. The weekend before Thanksgiving Break, we were home to a bias-related incident involving some of our Black residential students. Bias-related incidents are an example of those events which put higher education on the pedestal of the “free speech vs. hate speech” debate. The fact that they continue to happen is just a sign of the times we live in, and it’s unfortunate that we haven’t been able to move past our own history by this point.

Now, the “residential” part may not seem as important as the “Black” part in this context, but it is important when you work in Residential Education and Housing and advise the Residence Hall Association. The three individuals on the receiving end of this incident live on our campus, and we did not show them any support in their time of need. That’s on us.

But I have to add that it’s not just on us. It’s on the entire College population. “Many on campus labor consistently to make this campus a healthy, safe, welcoming, and inclusive place,” President Kathryn A. Foster shared at the campus-wide forum held the next available Wednesday after the incident took place. “But our racist incidents reflect that we are not yet healthy, safe, welcoming, and inclusive to the level that we aspire, and that we must demand.” The forum brought up many points, including many of the past transgressions that went either unnoticed or failed to get any solutions.

Maybe you’re going through something similar, and maybe it’s been a continuous years-long problem that has persisted. I’m sorry if you have gone through this. This is not easy. However, from both that forum, led by our new President and new Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, and our own reflections within the Department, we think we have some short- and long-term solutions. Maybe you can use these on your own campus, or at least keep them in the back of your mind. 

LISTEN. We have to actually take the time to listen to people’s experiences, struggles, ideas, and visions. From the RHA side, we failed throughout the semester by not being more inclusive at our general body meetings. The executive board is mostly White females (a population that makes up the majority of TCNJ’s student and faculty/staff populations). Our meetings consist of the same small group of residents, and we have not actively advertised our meetings/events, which would help to bring in new people and their ideas/opinions. Now RHA gets higher attendance because residential students know about them (mostly because of their lack of involvement, but negative press is still press, I suppose). Our general body noted that the e-board took language about cultural education/inclusion out of the constitution. That’s something that’s going to get a look over the Winter break. However, if it wasn’t for listening, we, as the advisors, would not have known. So just listen. And listen well.

LEARN. Along with the previous point, you have to learn what people need. You can’t have the answers, because you don’t know what people need, what they see, or how they feel. If you try to implement a new policy or change a process without knowing how it may affect everyone involved, then you’ve already failed (President Foster talked about “failing” a lot, so I’m inclined to use her language here for emphasis). The forum brought up a great point about the diversity and inclusion education that we require of our students. This type of curriculum should be instituted at the start of every college educational experience. Classes on diversity, inclusion, social justice, and equity need to be there, because we have too many students with only one experience in their lives leading into college. We have students who’ve never left their neighborhood. We have students who’ve never seen someone who didn’t look like them. We need to expand some horizons, and it starts from the top. We need to learn too, and we need to hold ourselves accountable to learn. If the “adults” aren’t participating in diversity education, then the students won’t either.

EDUCATE. I am not asking anyone to speak for their entire group/community. That’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid. Many of my coworkers, student staff, and students are feeling that fatigue of having to speak for their race or their identity. That’s where the faculty/staff of non-marginalized groups come in. We need to be allies and advocate for those who either are using their voices too much to the point of fatigue or cannot speak due to the systemic barriers that take away their voice. If you hear inappropriate language or microaggressions, call them out and educate them. If you see hateful speech or actions taking place, call them out and educate them. If you see folks struggling to understand the importance of having campus-wide fora on these subjects, call them out and educate them. “Do you know what the incident was?” “Do you know it is having a negative impact on the campus as a whole?” “Since you’re part of the campus community, you should do your part to stay informed and become an ally too.” (Depending on your students, you may want to tailor this conversation).

DO NOT BECOME COMPLACENT. We live in a fast-paced world. The Olympics happened in 2018. Memes have a two-week lifespan at best. Flint, MI, is still without clean water, and no one talks about this. We need to remember this moment we’re in now: how it makes us feel, how it makes the campus feel, and our goals moving forward. We cannot become complacent and say “yes, we met at a forum, and we talked about goals, and… that’s it, right?” No. we need to hold ourselves accountable. More race-related bias incidents have sprung up since that incident. Good. Show those who feel they’re comfortable spreading hatred that we aren’t afraid and they haven’t torn us down. Keep checking in on the President’s office and see what task forces and initiatives they’re starting. Make sure your students have a voice in those initiatives. We cannot stop. “Traditions dies a hard death,” wrote John Kotter in Out Iceberg Is Melting. “Make it stick: hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions.” We will keep moving forward past these “traditions” of sweeping things under the rug, and I will make sure we leave no stone unturned. 

Will you?

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