Between the World and All of Us: The Intellectual Cage of Racism

“White America is arrayed …to protect its exclusive power to control and dominate…The power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief of being ‘white,’ and without it ‘white people’ would cease to exist for want of reasons (Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me). I found myself wondering what he meant- until I realized that being white and having the power to control or define the meaning of events seem to be synonymous in this culture. What does whiteness control? Typically, whiteness determines the “correct” interpretation of any event. Whether George Zimmerman had the “right” to shoot Treyvon Martin. Whether a child who is disruptive in school belongs in the counselor’s office, special education or prison. What kinds of hairstyles make a person look responsible and respectable in a job interview. It is reasonable to assert that the ‘white’ belief system about these kinds of circumstances shapes the means by which these issues are addressed.

“We take our shape within that cage of reality bequeathed to us at birth,” observed James Baldwin, half a century ago. The white reality cage and the Black reality cage lead to very different views of the world. Coates adds, “The people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” Very few white people consider themselves racists because we believe that racism involves intentionally hurting Black people. It is quite possible to hurt a Black person unintentionally simply by believing a typical ‘white’ interpretation of an event, such as not questioning why police force is so much more evident when disruptions occur in Black neighborhoods than on a nature preserve where white people with guns occupy a building in Oregon. Hurt occurs when a Black youth with dreadlocks is assumed to be dangerous, but a white youth who sexually assaults another person is just being misunderstood. It is painful to face the fact that even if we have not personally inflicted any pain, we are still in a position to benefit from the system of ‘whiteness’ that shapes our thinking. It seems imperative that we explore the Baldwin and Coates observations carefully. Even if a particular white person has not helped to create the system that presumes that “white is right,” responsible white people can assume the responsibility for naming the system, the cage of our world view, and dismantling the damage it creates for people of color. People of African descent are the main targets of this kind of assault, but members of all other non-dominant ethnic groups also get more than their share.

“White fragility” is another way of describing Coates’ politics of personal exoneration. What would ‘white’ people lose if we systematically explored the matrix of economic and policy practices that shape life in the United States and understood how the entire system is geared to advantage white people and disadvantage Black people? This phenomenon includes redlining mortgages, closing voting sites in Black neighborhoods, underfunding inner city schools and incarcerating Black men at a rate that far exceeds that of whites. White people who read this blog have probably not participated in the creation of our political/economic matrix, but we benefit from it. We typically have less trouble borrowing money and tend to receive lower interest rates. We are not followed around in department stores on the presumption that we intend to steal. We are not stopped by police officers, as Sandra Bland was, for changing lanes without signaling. And we are not generally stopped for driving around white neighborhoods and asked if we live there. Black people are used to being treated this way and teach their children how to avoid endangering themselves in these kinds of situations. White people barely realize that these problems exist.

Racism does not actually describe individual behavior. White people who offend, ignore, assault or deny access to Black people in particular situations may be ignorant. They may be bullies, unaware of the impact of their behavior or simply rude. We are all products of Baldwin’s cage of reality, including its belief systems, unexamined prejudices and tendencies to treat each other as objects (The Man, Those People, Rappers, Honkies) rather than human subjects. Racism is a system that people who think of themselves as white benefit from. People who are labeled Black are always at the short end of the stick in this system. If you are a white reader, I suggest that you think about these issues and read Between the World and Me– or find one of the numerous interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates on YouTube. You will get an education that you never received in school. Let me know what you think. I’d love to print some responses.####

Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I am on a temporary hiatus from writing at the moment because of foot surgery. I am old enough to have been a hippie and a druggie but never really got into either one as a permanent way of life. The painkillers are a new experience that makes me feel like my mind is floating above my body in a euphoric golden cloud. It does help me understand why people want to keep taking these drugs, but I am looking forward to being finished with both the drugs and the pain. So much for chemically induced euphoria. I am much more comfortable with the angst of 21st century reality, but I don’t’ think I’m going back there for a little while.

Anyhow- here’s what I have been trying to think about. An article in the September issue of The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Political Correctness is Ruining Higher Education”, has given me a growing feeling of insight into several very difficult questions: Why are so many people shooting people because they disagree with them? Why do we have so much difficulty talking about race or other topics that are uncomfortable? Why are so many people thinking that Donald Trump can be a serious contender for President? Why does Trump think he should be taken seriously as a contender- or why does he think that running the most powerful country in the world is the same as running a business? The list goes on.

The premise of this article is that the culture of universities is shifting from one where debate and intellectual conflict are seen as valuable educational activities to one where any controversial subject is seen as threatening to the emotional well-being of students. Critical thinking is being eroded by the pursuit of intellectually “safe” environments. This seems to mean that students expect to be protected from conversations and readings about any subject that might evoke feelings of discomfort. Professors are being asked to label readings that discuss upsetting topics with “trigger warnings.” For example, Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might trigger distress in any student who either has been in a mental institution or is related to a person who has had that experience. The student presumably should be forewarned and protected from any distress that the novel might evoke based on the student’s memory of comparable experiences. Most of the great classics of literature contain descriptions of pain, conflict and tension. Great books are filled with murder, mayhem, love and loss. The elements of the tension are part of what makes the classics great literature and learning to understand how people cope with profound tension is a significant part of a good education.

Understanding connections between elements of the universal human experience and elements of one’s own life is one of the great gifts that the humanities offer students. Helping students learn to manage their emotions in difficult situations is one of the gifts that student affairs professionals and other counselors offer to students in their college experience. We create courses and programs for students that are designed to challenge preconceived views about many different and difficult topics. This process is intended to provoke what Mezirow called “transformative learning.” This complex set of skills allows people to see the world from multiple perspectives, communicate with people who have different perspectives and enrich their own interior lives because they can do so. This is the skillset that allows people to live together with some kind of equanimity even when there are significant differences between them. This skillset is being lost throughout our culture, not just in higher education. As a nation, we are far less competent as global citizens because of this loss- and we are also less competent family and community members and workers.

The Atlantic article is worth reading by anyone who has anything to do with higher education. I will have a lot more to say about it when my brain comes back. In the meanwhile, all contributions and observations from readers are welcome. We need to talk about these ideas. They may help us swing the pendulum back toward something approaching clear and accurate thinking.   ###

More About White Fragility

MORE ABOUT WHITE FRAGILITY

(With apologies to everybody I am about to offend)

 

Fear is a question according to Abraham Maslow. What are we afraid of? What are the sources of our fear? Michelle Obama recently told a group of young women who were about to graduate from high school that she understood the “slings and arrows” that they faced daily, the slights, the disrespectful remarks, the assumptions of school counselors that they were not bright enough to achieve their own goals, the assumptions of store employees that they were shoplifters. She knew about these microaggressions because she too had been a target, even after she graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. People of African descent have to be strong to achieve their goals because they typically have to overcome more obstacles that people of European descent. Developing thick skin and at least a veneer of self-confidence is not an option. It is a necessity. Rising above fear is a daily challenge for many people of African descent.

So what are white people afraid of when it comes to talking about race? Actually it’s a much broader question. Most humans are generally afraid of people who have more privilege than they do and live according to different values or norms. What happens the first time a new love meets their partner’s family? Fear- will they like me? What if I say something or do something they don’t approve of? What if I am somebody they don’t approve of? What will my family think when they meet my new love? Everybody knows what that kind of fear feels like. Most white people experience this fear in personal and specific situations. For many Black people this kind of hyperawareness (Maybe fear is too strong a word.) is a daily reality. White people can easily have preconceived opinions about Black people that include reasons not to approve, trust or like them simply because of a perception of “race”. These reasons are firmly embedded in consciousness because of stereotypes and images conveyed in the media, and they can easily interfere with honest interaction. In fact, white people may not feel the need to get to know Black people they meet. Instead of attempting to engage , white people can easily relegate Black people to the status of “non-persons” who are objects to be managed or diminished to avoid feeling any discomfort. This is one manifestation of privilege- the opportunity to dismiss or ignore anything or anyone who makes one uncomfortable.

How does anybody handle this kind of “what do they think of me” fear? We stay in the background and watch how the dominant group behaves. We listen to what they talk about, what they get upset about and what they hope for. We speak cautiously until we understand what is considered “normal” behavior by members of the other group. When we begin to understand we also begin to relax. If we make a mistake we apologize.

What can white people do to overcome their fear, to become less fragile when talking about race? Start paying attention to personal reactions when interacting with a person of African descent. We actually have the same kind of reaction when we interact with people from any group whose culture is unfamiliar- but in this conversation, we’re talking about “race” so let’s focus on conversations between white people and people of African descent. Become more conscious of the conversation as it unfolds. Is it different than a typical conversation between two white people? As a white person, are you afraid of what the other person thinks of you or of making a conversational mistake? How will you know if you’ve said something offensive? How do you ever know when you have offended anybody? You watch their body language. Finally, and this is the most difficult thing to do, ask yourself how you probably look to the other person, not just physically, but how your behavior might affect that person. This is really a process of mental gymnastics called “empathy,” actively trying to see the world from the other person’s point of view.

It will take the United States a long time to dismantle the structures of racism, the inequalities built into our economic, political, educational and social systems. But the process of dismantling personal fragility can begin immediately. All we have to do is engage with each other as if race were simply an idea that gets in the way of respect, empathy, kindness and humanity. Anybody can do that, if you can rise above fear of talking about race and begin to make human connections.###

The Fragility of White People

The Fragility of White People

I have recently been reading comments in the social media about “the fragility of white people,” when it comes to talking about race. The fragility of white people? Does this mean that the group that is running this country is afraid of honest conversation with one group that hasn’t yet achieved equity? What are white people afraid of? Why are some seen as fragile? Fragile means easily broken. If Black people were fragile they would probably have disappeared from North America a long time ago. It takes strength not to get angry when you are followed around a store on the assumption that, because you’re Black, you’re probably a shoplifter. It takes strength not to argue back with a police officer when you’re pushed up against your car at a traffic stop because you reached into your pocket for your driver’s license. It takes incredible strength to raise Black children in a world where you have to have “the talk” with them regularly about how to behave around white folks so that they aren’t perceived as threatening.

The fragility of white people is just fear. It’s fear of having to be honest about what Black people face on a regular basis when interacting with whites just to be perceived as “nice” or unthreatening. It may be the fear of having to examine our own behavior in the ways that we think about and treat Black people. It is the fear of saying the wrong thing even though we frequently say the wrong thing in other circumstances and simply apologize and move on. There is something very frightening for many white people about saying the “wrong thing” when it comes to race. Why is this fear so powerful? Is it the fear that many white people have because they think that Black people are not human in the same way they are? Derek Bell, writing in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992), discovered that upwards of 90% of white people he interviewed would never want to change race, even for a short period of time, if given the opportunity. Even when we can’t explain the corrosive power of racism on the human spirit, as white people we sense it. Given the chance, who would want to jump into a well of corrosion? Recent research tells us that Black people are still being discriminated against in the hiring process. Resumes with “Black sounding” names like LaKesha or Tamar are far more likely to be rejected than resumes that have white names even when the experience and the credentials on the resume are exactly the same. The motto Black Lives Matter has been countered in the media with the alternative motto, All Lives Matter. Of course they do. The question is why do we need to make a statement about Black lives, while we take the value of white lives for granted?

I have been struggling with how to write about this topic for weeks. I have not been able to put into words my own rage about “the fragility of white people.” What is it about this notion that has stopped me from writing? I have no patience with cowardice. I have no patience with people who see what’s happening but don’t mention it because they have something to lose. I believe in speaking Truth to Power. I do it frequently, often to my own detriment. I know that when people speak up about topics that challenge the behavior and policies of the power structure, the speakers are often labeled as troublemakers and punished. So, even if I can’t explain exactly when I am angry about this, I am bringing it up. I welcome comments about this subject. Anything that stops me from talking is a rare event and ought to be examined. Other voices are welcome. ###

Colleges, Racism and Bad Publicity

Colleges, Racism and Bad Publicity

 

Colleges tend to respond to racist incidents on campus in a “damage control to our reputation” mode rather than an approach that could shed light on the underlying sources of the incident. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 21, 2015) A summary of research presented at the AERA indicates that racist incidents reported over the past three years on campuses focused on culpability of perpetrators and generally did not go further to begin meaningful discussions of racism on campus. “College presidents are wiling to address the racist (behavior) but rarely the racism” (Chronicle). This is a disturbing trend that has been evident in events at the University of Connecticut which is also struggling with on-going student expressions of racism.

Racism functions as a “family secret” in much of the United States, much as addiction or abuse functions in individual families. This dysfunction makes insightful and productive conversations very difficult. Our problem began before our founding as a nation when Benjamin Franklin wondered, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, if the indigenous people who lived in “the new world” had some kind of disease because their skin was brown ( Takaki, 2008). Racism was intentionally constructed in the United States to ensure that white people always thought they were better than enslaved Africans simply because of the color of their skin. This construction of race served the white landowners who wanted to be sure that, in the event of a slave insurrection, the almost equally oppressed white sharecroppers, would side with the landowners against the slaves.

Slavery has been a universal phenomenon since nations and groups started conquering each other and taking prisoners. Most prisoners of war/slaves were freed after a designated period of time. The United States is the only nation of which I am aware that created a permanent group of enslaved people and based their enslavement on skin color, a condition that could not be changed or eliminated. We suffer the results of our history to this day although many of our white citizens have little understanding the racism that our history and politics engendered.

Race is the elephant in America’s living room. Our economic and residential segregation leads to a very widespread level of segregation thoughout the nation, particularly in our schools. People from different backgrounds do not grow up near each other’s houses, eating dinner with each other or worshipping together. We have rarely grown up with friends from different ethnic, racial, religious or cultural groups. The most typical way we know each other is thought caricatures of ethnic/racial groups as presented in the media.

Our race problem cannot be addressed by giving administrators “sensitivity training,” or punishing students for speaking incorrectly or rudely to others. It must be addressed at the root — understanding our tormented national history around race and understanding our common, transcendent humanity. It is the responsibility of university leaders to support campus-wide efforts to educate everybody to live in a diverse community and see all members as valuable human beings, all equal to each other in worth and dignity. This kind of undertaking is massive and long term. Such cultural change requires experiential education, dialogue between groups, courage and a level of insight that has so far been lacking. It will not be successful if we stop at punishing individuals but not helping them see their behavior in broader historical and cultural context.##

Telling Your Story

 

 

TELLING YOUR STORY

 EinsteinEnergy

 What’s your story? Who told you what kind of a person you should be? What was the message you were given about the ways the world works? We all have stories that guide our behavior- but the problem is that we don’t think of them as stories. We think of them as REALITY. “To be human is to be constantly searching for patterns that ease the ache of awareness and incomprehension. This explains the great power of story and metaphor in human thinking. We are always looking for meaning, for patterns that are both familiar and relevatory, that give us some small understanding of ourselves and the universe around us” (The End of College by Kevin Carey, 2015, p. 83). The stories we inherit and the stories we invent help us make sense of our lives. They supply the patterns- how things came to be the way they are and what’s likely to happen next. Perhaps most importantly, they tell us who to be in our own context to make our lives satisfying.

Civilizations also have stories. Everybody’s story is derived from their culture- who you are is a blend of individual and cultural/contextual narratives. What’s our story? According to Eisenstein (2013) the story of our culture is a story of separation, separation of people from the planet and from each other. We are told to dominate the earth and its resources, to use our apparent autonomy to compete with others. The prize for winning is unclear, but it seems to involve accumulation of wealth. What’s the prize that the victor receives? What happens to the people who don’t win? What role does fear play in keeping us apart and encouraging us to hoard resources so that for some of us to have enough, others will probably have to go without. This is also called “making a good living”. It’s the reason most people go to college – to be able to “have a better life,” which presumably implies having more money to buy more things. Our story tells us that “the bottom line” is always about money. It doesn’t mean happiness or feeling like we matter or helping people find a sense of purpose.

I am not opposed to having enough money- or enough of anything else. I am opposed to making money the sole or major motivation of our lives. Eisenstein believes that our Story serves to help us answer the significant questions …Who am I? Is there a purpose to life? Do I have a place in all this? If everybody acted like I do, what would the world be like?

Eisenstein suggests that it is time to write a new story, the Story of Connection or Reunion. Thich Nhat Hanh, the world famous Buddhist monk calls this Interbeing, the notion that everything is connected to everything else. Einstein calls it energy. So the question I have been asking myself lately is what frequency am I operating on, or What’s my story? As I begin to write the next chapter in my story, the one that involves creating your own work and not worrying about how much money your work is worth, I am asking “How do I remain conscious of connection?” and” What kinds of connections do I want to nourish?” If Interbeing, the Story of Connection, is the evolving story of our civilization, what parts of the story are you writing, or being? Just breathe and listen.###

Dialogue at the Intersection

Dialogue at the Intersection

According to the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (Chronicle, 3/19/15), we’re having “race relations” problems on our campuses. I disagree. We’re having human relations problems in our society and two of the most horrific manifestations of those problems on campus are racial and sexual/homophobic abuse, assault and other forms of violence. Why are we now so aware of this kind of behavior? Social media is one answer. We can hear racist chants, and screaming hate speech and see assaults almost as soon as they happen. We can know immediately that an African American honors student was beaten by the police for attempting to use a false ID card and five white students who sold bad drugs that almost killed several of their peers were arrested and then released on their own recognizance. Members of one white fraternity assaulted members of one Black sorority while the campus police allegedly defended the fraternity brothers’ “freedom of speech.” It took that administration five months to hold the fraternity accountable, and that happened only after the group broke several other provisions of the campus conduct code.

What’s going on here? The campus diversity officers stated that students from different backgrounds don’t’ have enough opportunity to “intersect” on campus. Intersection is something that inanimate objects do, often with explosive results. Engagement or interaction is something that human beings do and the results may be good or bad depending on the difficulty of the topic, the skill of the participants and the value that they attach to the conversation. Billiard balls intersect. Then one knocks the other one out of the way and wins the game. Human interaction should not be a game and talking about relationships between human beings should not be a win/lose process.

Black Lives Matter- All Lives Matter. Differences among groups should not be considered a reason for one group to dominate, but historically that has been the case in this culture and in many others. Some lives have more social privilege than others. People who have privilege generally are unaware of it. People who have power generally do not willingly relinquish it. One Vice-Provost who conducted a survey on her campus discovered that “about half the white male students had never attended an event about diversity. They didn’t see the value in doing so” (Chronicle).

As far as I am concerned there is only one way to address this issue although it will take many forms. This generation intersects; it does not engage. Students are multitasking and speed dialing their way through life, thinking they can conduct several conversations at once while not really paying attention to any one of them. The only way to move from intersection to engagement is to stop and pay attention to experience, to feelings and to the effect of one’s own behavior on another. This kind of conversation generally does not occur in classes because it takes time and is often confusing and painful. It doesn’t fit the semester calendar or the time frame of a single class period. A few faculty members in the behavioral sciences, counselors and student affairs professionals are trained to conduct these very difficult conversations. Many faculty members and administrators do not believe that it is the role of higher education to help students learn about human relationships, Therefore, it follows that taking a “diversity course”, if it is conducted in a typical, intellectual and academic fashion, won’t do much good in helping students learn to manage their very difficult emotional responses to differences of opinion or experience among different racial groups, or between men and women.

The people on our campuses who are asking for effective responses to our current problems are the vanguard of a generation that wants to learn how to develop meaningful relationships across significant lines of human difference, and they are ill prepared to accomplish that task alone. It is simply too frightening. They need support from the educational leaders who are responsible for helping them learn and it is not clear how many of those people are either qualified or willing. This process takes patience, wisdom, introspection and discernment. It is a collective process of soul searching and the students seem to be leading the way. We will never know until we start the dialogue.###

Liminality: Crossing the Threshold Both Ways

Liminality: Crossing the Threshold Both Ways

 

Spring is a time of liminality. First it’s warm and the sun is shining and then the weather turns chilly, raw and cloudy and moods sink back to blizzard survival mode. The Buddhists teach that everything is transient. Language is a web that creates illusions of permanence. If we name it, we believe that we know what it is and can assume that what it is now should or will remain as it is described. Maybe not.

Naming sets us up for constant confusion, disappointment and disorientation. Of course in the mundane world we have to name experiences, objects, locations and people. Otherwise, we couldn’t communicate. The question is why we hang on to the names we attach to the flow of experience so tightly that letting go is like pulling off a scab. We use names like male/female, white/black, fair/unfair, competent/incompetent, dominant/ subordinate- and they may all be accurate in the time and context they’re used but they are neither permanent nor complete. Life is much more complicated than binary categories although they do have their places and uses.

Maybe names should lead to questions. If I let go of the black/white binary, how will I know who I am in American society? How will I frame an opinion of the various racist incidents that have been occurring on our campuses? Is it possible for me to imagine myself on the other side of the binary, seeing the incidents from another point of view? What would I gain if I could do that and what would I lose? If I frame a situation as unfair, what would I lose if I realized that the situation is embedded in a much larger unfair system? Is the oppressor acting out of a personal need to dominate or is that person also enmeshed in an oppressive system that shapes perspective into domination and oppression? If s/he doesn’t dominate others what will be the systemic response? If I see it as a system, what will I lose and what will I gain? How will I be forced to reframe my understanding of the behavior and see beyond to the web of oppression? We are taught in the myth of Indra’s web that movement in one area of the web is reflected in every other area. If I know that, how do I benefit by continuing to see myself as powerless? On which side of the threshold does resentment reside? “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die” (unattributed). Who benefits from resentment and what do we lose by letting it go?

“I was of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds” (Wallace Stevens). Trees can be seen as constantly moving energy systems, particularly in spring when the sap is rising. If there are three blackbirds in your tree, whose perspective will you choose? Can you imagine the blackbird changing branches and thus changing the world as it is seen? Can you do it? Must you name any of it? Breathe. Stop thinking. Imagine the blackbirds and what they see.###

Becoming your Authentic Self: Discerning Wholeness

Becoming your Authentic Self: Discerning Wholeness

 

How do you make decisions? Do you use a “pro’s and con’s” list? Do you go with your gut? Do you sleep on it? Do you have confidence in your choices? This is the season of big decisions for many people who are job searching in higher education. What if you make a mistake?

We often face choices that pull us in at least two different directions? Live near family or move far away? Take a job that pays more or one that connects more with students? Live in (work 24/7; save money) or live off ( pay rent) and have time for the rest of my life? The rest of my life? Do I even know what that is?

Discernment is an ancient tradition in many faiths and in mindfulness approaches. Discernment is a process that helps us to ask ourselves (or our spiritual tradition) Who am I? Who do I want to become? What experiences in my life contribute to my sense of authenticity and wholeness and what experiences pull me into disconnected fragments? Discernment is a process of learning to balance and reflect on polarities. In American culture, if we are faced with two conflicting choices, we are often encouraged to pick the “best” one or the right one. Throughout our education, we have been told that there are right answers to most questions and that our job is to identify the best way of finding the right answer for a particular problem. What if there is no right answer? What if there are wise answers or answers that work best for us? What if those answers reflect not choices, but balance?

Seeing our choices as polarities allows us to ask how we can creatively address the tension we are experiencing. How can we create harmony, recognizing that harmony is most meaningful when it also involves dissonance? The Jesuits tell us (Barry & Doherty, 2002) that any system of discernment emerges from a crisis of a particular time. The crisis of job searching is one of values, personal authenticity and the demands we face in our daily lives. How to balance all these? Nobody else can do it for you, but you can spend some time just listening to whatever source of wisdom you rely on. You can ask yourself if you are making a career choice or a vocational choice. How much dissonance is interesting and how much is destructive? If you pictured yourself in several different outcomes, which one would feel best? Who do you want to be? What do you have to offer? Who will welcome your gifts and offer you gifts of their own? This isn’t only a thinking process. It’s a thinking, feeling, imagining, being quiet process. Take your time. Breathe. Enjoy your choices. ###

Learning: The Difference between Knowing and Knowing About

Learning : the Difference Between Knowing and Knowing About

 

If I asked you to identify the most important thing you’ve ever learned, could you do it? That’s not really a fair question. How do you decide what’s most important? But if I asked you to identify something you’ve learned that remained very important in your life, you probably could find several examples. How do you tell the difference between knowing and knowing about. What does it mean to know something? Knowing means having information. Nothing is implied about caring about what you know. For example, I know that there are about 15,000 students at my university but the only ones I care about in a personal way are those I advise or teach. The way I know my own students is very different than the way I know about the student body of my university.

Learning which leads to knowing always involves caring or some other emotion. Robert Zull talks about “emotion molecules,” i.e. the neurochemicals that anchor learning and knowing. Meaningful learning is always anchored in emotions, yet we base most of our teaching in higher education on the premise that emotion interferes with learning. What’s that about? Does anybody care?

One kind of learning that matters to me is learning to Welcome the Other (Chavez & Guido diBrito). This kind of learning involves developing good relationships with people from identity groups that typically have had little contact with each other. This kind of learning is often called diversity training. I don’t’ like that term because Welcoming the Other is not about training. Training is learning a skill. Welcoming the Other is about knowing. How do we teach people to welcome people they don’t know, that they often fear and whom they find confusing or unsettling at best? The short answer is “We don’t.” Teaching or training people about diversity is generally ineffective because it typically involves knowing about members of different groups. We can know a lot about all kinds of groups and still not know people are members of those groups. We can know a lot about racism and still be afraid of people of African descent on a level which is almost completely unconscious. We can know a lot about homophobia and still be afraid of gay people or our own homoerotic feelings. That level of fear and unawareness leads to inauthentic interactions, microaggressions and frequent betrayals. When we become aware of feelings, get comfortable with those feelings and learn to reach out beyond fear to connection, then we begin to know people.

Ask yourself another question. Do you know, really know, a person who belongs to a different identity group? Have you ever discussed anything about the various identities in a meaningful, vulnerable and caring way? Or are you just pretending that “we’re all just human beings” and ignoring the differences that might cause fear or pain. Think about it. Try it. Pay attention to your feelings. Breathe deeply. Let it go.###