By: Anna Landsverk
Tucked away past the pool tables, board games and cafés in the CMU, a class of a different kind is in session. Faculty, staff members and a few community residents sit close together in a circle of chairs, openly discussing their personal experiences with racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ in pairs.
The program, entitled “Confronting ‘ism’ on Campus,” was brought to MSUM on Wednesday to educate the campus on confronting hurtful remarks against minorities, even and especially when it is uncomfortable to do so. Other topics discussed included power relationships, the sources of fear around minorities and the role for allyship.
Alicia Sojourner, the Racial Equity Consulting Manager for the Minneapolis YWCA Racial Justice Program, led the workshop-style program. The purpose was to help students, professors and staff members deal with hateful or ignorant comments in a constructive way.
“It’s often the little things that are said and done that make people feel ‘othered’ or make people feel discriminated against,” Sojourner said. Their program targets these little incidents, like a racist joke, an offhanded comment or a microaggression.
Although many Minnesotans may pride themselves on a “Minnesota Nice” attitude, the state has been ranked as the second-worst state for racial equality in the nation.
Sojourner discussed several strategies one can use to confront offensive comments in a productive way, instead of just starting a fight or walking away. They explained that the workshop was tailored to the passive-aggressive nature of the upper-Midwest.
“Upper-Midwest folks don’t actually confront (others),” Sojourner explained. Because of that, some may choose to walk away rather than step up and discuss an issue with a stranger, coworker or student. Instead, Sojourner suggested using one of five tactics:
- Expressing Emotion
- Empathetic Relating
- Returning Later
However, the tactics should not be applied randomly in any situation—several of the strategies might only be effective in a specific circumstance. Educating, in particular, can be a tricky method to use. Many people may take an educational statement as condescending towards the other person, amplifying the conflict.
One barrier against speaking out is that people feel they don’t have the right language for abrupt situations. For instance, communications professor Rebecca Gardner had encountered offensive comments from students before, but she was hesitant about responding for fear of misspeaking.
“I want to think before I speak—I want to have the right response,” Gardner said to the group. “I wish I would’ve allowed myself to ask the imperfect question.”
She was not the only one. Out of the ten people in attendance, everyone had a story to share of a time they let an offensive comment go. Sojourner’s goal is to give people tools to take action in those situations.
“If you don’t return later (to a hurtful comment), you’re saying you agree,” Sojourner said.
Besides using the five strategies outlined in the workshop, Sojourner stressed that practicing these situations helps to “build the muscles” of speaking up.
“Folks wait until it’s a reactive situation,” Sojourner said. “I tell people to practice in a proactive situation.”
Proactively addressing race, class, gender or ability issues can be awkward at first. However, it helps people to gauge the attitudes of those around them before there is a more obviously offensive remark.
Confronting people on controversial topics can be a challenge. Whether the person is a stranger or a friend, the idea is daunting. Several of the participants said they freeze after hearing a questionable or inflammatory comment; they cannot think, let alone speak. Then, after the incident passed, the attendees expressed their regret for not having acted.
On a college campus, it can be especially challenging for students who grew up in a predominantly white, non-diverse area to know how to talk about race.
A person of color, for instance, will start exploring their “racial development journey at around four,” Sojourner said. For white students, this exploration of racial identity might just be starting when they enter college.
Despite the university hosting diversity events on a variety of subjects and minority groups, attendance and interest has been a major issue. Several of the attendees to the workshop are from the Diversity and Inclusion department. Others in attendance were faculty who have a specific interest in diversity issues.
One surefire way to increase attendance is to make events like this workshop mandatory for students; and, in fact, it is something the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is considering.
Chief Diversity Officer Donna Brown mentioned that she was working with Student Senate to brainstorm ways to include more diversity programming in required programs; some ideas included a diversity unit in First Year Experience (FYE) classes, mandatory attendance for freshmen at certain events and collaborating with organizations outside the Diversity and Inclusion umbrella.
“The ones that show up regularly (at events) already have some knowledge and interest,” Brown said. “This is the knowledge and skills you don’t always learn in the classroom,” but attendance remains stubbornly low.
Brown was also frustrated that the events that drew the biggest crowds were those with, in her words, food, fun and festival. “We need to get deeper than cultural presentations,” Brown said.
She has been working on several new collaborations this year to get the message out about events and draw audiences.
In the meantime, the motivated few continue to show up to every presentation, workshop and film screening. They are tasked with bringing their newly learned strategies into their classrooms, offices and workplaces. The question of whether that will be enough remains to be seen.