NACAC’s Antiracist Education Institute takes on microaggressions, identity, and creating inclusivity on campuses.
by Joanna Manning
After students from historically marginalized backgrounds arrive on college campuses each fall, fresh-faced and optimistic about the future, many struggle to find a sense of belonging at their institutions. Lawrence Alexander, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Carney Sandoe & Associates, has made it his goal to change that.
In his seminar “Understanding Cultural Identity and Microaggressive Office Environments,” the third in a series from NACAC’s Antiracist Education Institute, Alexander sought to help admissions professionals create more inclusive environments, both in their offices and in the classrooms.
“Belonging is a worthy north star,” he said. “Too often, students of color are being sent into toxic environments, where microaggressive cultures can erode their sense of safety and belonging. We have to consider what kind of community we are bringing our students into.”
Alexander challenged participants to continue the hard work of challenging campus practices that marginalize, discriminate against, or otherwise demonstrate prejudices and undermine opportunities for every student. To do so, he urged participants to understand intersectional identity and to consider effective ways to disrupt microaggressive behaviors.
Identity, Alexander explained, is multifaceted: ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, race, and physical abilities all shape our sense of self; and it is possible to be part of some historically privileged groups while simultaneously belonging to a marginalized one, all of which can lead to blind spots in a person’s cultural awareness. It’s possible, for example, to be a racial minority and use sexist language. “Where am I on my identity journey, and how well do I understand my personal impact on the psychic safety of others?”
He urged participants to discuss that question in small virtual breakout rooms, where they also had the opportunity to practice the “appreciative inquiry” that is so vital to anti-racism work.
“Be open-minded to others’ ideas, feelings, views, and ways of doing things so that greater exploration and understanding are possible,” Alexander said. “Be aware of intent and impact: Our intent might not match our impact. It is possible to be well-intentioned and still say and do hurtful things.”
Assuming good intent, Alexander argued, is at the heart of addressing microaggressive behaviors, which are often unintended slights that are based on stereotypes. He urged admissions personnel to “call in” colleagues to discuss concerns about problematic behavior privately, making observations versus accusations whenever possible. When concerns are addressed in front of other colleagues and students—when people are “called out” publicly—it “puts a period where a comma belongs,” Alexander said. “Calling someone out misses the redemptive opportunity for them to self-reflect,” he said.
Alexander has been the beneficiary of this grace in his own professional life, when something he said was not interpreted the way he intended. When a colleague called him in and politely asked for clarification, Alexander was able to reflect on the miscommunication and had the opportunity to correct himself.
Oftentimes, however, microaggressions are systemic, which can be harder to address. For example, professionals of color may be assumed to want to do access, equity, and diversity work, even if the work does not align with their professional interests. Students of color are asked to serve on diversity student panels and are asked more about identity than their academic or professional interests. LGBTQ+ students may be asked more about celebrations than safety. Alexander encouraged participants to think deeply about professional and student panels to help combat this bias.
When Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie moved to the United States for college, Alexander noted, she found that she was dissonant to her white roommate, who had developed a single story about what life in Africa looked like and could not imagine, for example, that Adichie listened to Mariah Carey rather than tribal music. Alexander referenced Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” to remind participants to look for ways that their admissions process perpetuates a single story of student success. How do they see students of color who are not first-generation or low-income, for example? What are their stereotypes about Asian students, rural students, and so on? He asked participants to examine their own biases when working with students, to identify which stories were compelling to them and which were harder to advocate for. And, he acknowledged that even the most aware can make mistakes.
“Unfortunately, I have lived out some of my stereotypes and microaggressions in how I’ve allocated time with students,” Alexander said.
In a second breakout session, small groups were invited to discuss the current state of fragility at their institutions and how they can practice “calling in” to interrupt microaggressive behaviors individually and within systems. To do this, some elements of the community’s culture and/or leadership would need to change. Alexander pointed to one school Amherst College that had created an Associate Dean of Financial Aid, Equity, and Access position to ensure that financial aid policies were being made through the lens of equity. He challenged groups to think of ways that DEI work could move forward through such structural change.
Alexander also reminded everyone that anti-racism work is difficult but vital. “What hurts my shoulders could break someone else’s back,” he said. “We have to create brave spaces to learn and to heal.”
Dr. Crystal E. Newby, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for NACAC, offered some words of encouragement for participants as well. “This work is heavy. It’s tiring,” she said. “But you have a community here who can help you. You can reach out to any one of us to be able to continue to do this work.”
Lawrence Alexander’s tips for “calling in”:
Not everyone is comfortable with “radical candor,” so when microaggressions in discussions involving more than two people, it’s often wise to set the stage for a one-on-one conversation rather than having an impromptu one. During those private meetings, Alexander says, “Make observations, not accusations.” He prefers to use phrases such as “You made this comment, and I wonder. . .” or “I heard you say this. Could you clarify what you meant?” And this dynamic should start the moment a “call-in” is begun: Offering these private conversations should be “an invitation to a conversation, not a summons to appear in court,” he says.
- The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,by Anthony Abraham Jack
- I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown
- Podcast:Intersectionality Matters by Kimberle Crenshaw
- Podcast:Codeswitch from NPR
- Documentary: Teach Us All (Currently available on Netflix)
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