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Don’t Say That, but Forgive Yourself When You Do

March 5, 2018
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“Hands Up” by Poster Boy via Flickr.com

Last week I watched an African American student tell their instructor about a racist incident they witnessed and how it made them feel. I watched him tell it three different ways and pause to replay various parts of the conversation. Then we broke it down and discussed reflections with peers. How often would we like to be able to do that with difficult conversations?

This was part of a sketch put on by the Michigan Players from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, who were invited to campus by a program called Advance RIT, whose slogan is “Reimagining our Careers and Campus Culture.” As far as I can tell, Advance RIT is a grant-funded initiative from within the division of Diversity and Inclusion to improve how the campus responds to incidents of discrimination and harassment based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, or various other statuses. In other words, they want everyone to be welcome at RIT.

I enjoyed the use of theater in this workshop. Too often when we have these conversations, which are difficult and triggering by their nature, we rely on the victims (our colleagues/students) to speak up and tell us how bad it’s been for them. Then, all too often, we invalidate their experiences either because it hasn’t happened to us or we don’t want to believe people we otherwise like and respect could behave that way or we think maybe they’re being “too sensitive” or, or, or any host of reasons. It takes what is supposed to be a conversation about how we can be more welcoming and leaves everyone feeling a little more divided. It’s just too personal when its our own house, but using theater gives us the sense of personal distance we need to seriously consider these important issues.

Using theater steps neatly around re-traumatizing victims and defensiveness in peers. It uses drama to put a situation before us for everyone to see. The situations are plausible because they are based on real events from case studies compiled by the University of Michigan. They actually happened, if not to the people who are now dramatizing them. We, the audience, can immediately relate to them. We can imagine similar events happening on our campus to our students and colleagues without the need to point fingers and name names (though that may come later).

Over two days, 160+ faculty and staff of RIT and NTID gathered to watch and reflect on two skits. The first demonstrated a number of micro- and macro-aggression targeting Muslim students through the life of one particular student. I came away with the sense that the student must live their life constantly on guard and how exhausting that must be. The second sketch centered around a single incident between an African American student and their instructor, described above. It demonstrated how heartbreaking it feels to watch someone in a place of authority witness a racist incident and do nothing about it, especially when its your own personal safety at issue.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, supportive, and engaging. Faculty and staff reflected privately, in small groups, and in large groups, and the hosts provided concrete strategies for how we can better respond to such incidents. I want to share one set of interventions with you for the future.

Dr. Sara Armstrong, the players’ artistic director, related that when they first provided the resource sheet titled “Responding to Campus Climate Concerns: Less Useful Strategies” to a group of faculty and then asked them to think of better responses, the faculty said “They’re nothing left!” So they did some research and in the following workshop, presented a two-sided sheet including “Possible Strategies” to demonstrate there were other ways to respond. Most of them come straight out of the chaplains playbook: listen compassionately, thank them for sharing, acknowledge the stress, tell them they matter, ask how you can help, show them how they have many supports, boost confidence, be sympathetic, share resources, collaborate on action (if any), and follow up. Sounds simple, but its fiendishly hard partly because the other, “less useful” responses get in the way.

To help understand those responses, I’m going to share the full text from that side of the resource sheet, then some thoughtful questions they asked us to consider during the event.

If your goal is to be an ally/ to act as a support for the individual who has chosen to share their concerns with you, consider not engaging in the behavior below. Though commonly used, these behaviors often limit the possibility of positive interaction and can exacerbate an individual’s already negative sense of climate.

• Don’t assume the role of investigator. It is not your role (at least not in this moment) to determine the veracity of this individual’s claims. “Did anyone else see/hear the incident you ‘re describing? “What exactly was it that was said?”

• Don’t minimize or trivialize the interactions the person experienced. “It could be so much worse, especially now. ” “People say stupid stuff all the time. ” “You should be glad that [this other ‘worse’ thing] didn’t happen.”

• Don’t attempt to explain or rationalize the motivations or beliefs of those that were
involved. “He’s a really good guy. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.” “Well, he’s
from a different generation.” “She must have been under a lot of stress. I’ve never known her to do anything like that.” “He was just trying to be funny.”

• Don’t deny the impact of marginalization on those who have been marginalized. “I
honestly don ‘t see what the big deal is.” “He didn’t mean anything by it” (implying that any hurt experienced is irrelevant).” “Groupwork is always hard” (implying that it is not meaningfully harder because of the experience that has just been described).

• Don’t uncritically compare your experiences of marginalization to others’. “I completely understand It’s exactly like when …” “Yeah, people always assume that I … too. “

• Don’t assume that others will (or should) react to situations in the ways you would or that there is only one appropriate course of action. “You have to talk to him about it.” “You need to report him.” “You have to ignore people like that.” “I wouldn’t get too wound up about it.”

• Don’ t disengage just because others’ emotions don’t mirror your own. “Maybe we should return to this when calmer heads prevail.” “I don’t appreciate your tone.” ” Well, getting upset about it doesn’t help anything.”

Source: University of Michigan Center for
Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT)

How often have we said these things to someone in distress? How often have I said them? A lot, I’m afraid.

But if they’re not helpful, why does anyone say them at all? This was a pivotal question for me, because it shifted my mind from judging to empathizing. 

Another colleague pointed out that we do them because that’s what’s been modeled to us. That’s how we’ve been treated in similar situations, especially as children telling an adult about something bad. So it’s a learned behavior, and we don’t know any better, but it’s also more than that.

Each and every one of these responses is, in some way, protective. We are protecting ourselves, our ego, our emotional, mental, and physical energy. And protecting ourselves isn’t a bad impulse; we’re just enacting it the wrong way. Staying with someone through a though situation is hard. It takes energy, especially when we’re trying to understand something that is beyond our natural frame of reference because of our different social locations.

I’m never going to understand what it was like for that African American student to hear his white classmates say racist things and watch the teacher hear them but fail to intervene. But I can imagine. I’ve heard classmates say sexist things and teachers do nothing or, worse, join in. It’s not the same (and I don’t need to bring it up), but it forms some basis for empathy.

But all that takes work. It takes energy to listen, realize he’s afraid for his safety, remember when I was afraid for my safety, experience the heartbreak with him, and … some days, I just don’t want to go there. I’m too tired, I’m too busy, I’m too … whatever, I just don’t want to go there.

At this stage in my career, I’m trained to go there. I go there everyday at the drop of a hat. But I’m also trained to handle it, to come back, to self-care. Most college instructors don’t have that level of training. I didn’t always have that (and even now, it sometimes isn’t enough). Our packet also included a five-page essay on healthy boundaries from Kerry Ann Rockquemore for that reason.

Once I realized each of these behaviors was a form of ego-protection, I was no longer shaking my mental finger at them. I felt deep compassion for myself in the past for using them and for others who respond this way (including me, from time to time). It also renewed my commitment to stick to the other side of the sheet. To listen and validate more, without jumping right into investigation and problem solving (although there are times for that, too).

It also affirmed the damage that comes from our warped sense of an enduring Self. Responding the other way, the more difficult way, because much easier and much more natural as I learned the Dharma. When I learned there was no Self to protect, as such, I could be much more open and less defensive while simultaneously being less enmeshed in the other person’s trauma. Being open also suddenly required so much less energy than it had before (still considerable, but less).

I must thank the Michigan players and RIT for reminding me of this Dharma. Overall, this is a fantastic approach to helping organizations understand the impact of marginalization and what they can do about it. I highly recommend it. If you’re still using these responses when students in crisis come to you, maybe consider letting them go, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Consider how you could listen and meet people where they are, but also be aware of your own boundaries and practice good self care. Finally, if you can, loosen that grip on ego. It’ll pay off in the long run for you and everyone around you. Good luck!

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