Health Dealing with racism in higher education

Dealing with racism in higher education


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For most of her younger years, she was known as a kid who did well in school and liked to read. Despite living in a rural and homogenous area, she was never “othered” at school because of her racial and ethnic identities. She took women’s studies courses in college, wherein she began to learn the importance of various social identities and the intentional work that is needed to create and maintain inclusive spaces for everyone.

She chose her graduate school because of its commitment to diversity, but she naïvely assumed that it would be a focal point of the majority of her classroom and applied clinical experiences.

As a cisgender woman who belongs to the LGBTQ community and identifies as black and Chicana, affirming diverse identities is important to her. She remembers how, during her first year of graduate school, every student was required to take two diversity courses. During that time, she learned about Pamela Hays’s ADDRESSING model, which provides a framework for acknowledging and assessing clients holistically.

Yet, in the subsequent courses she took, diversity was only vaguely referenced, with the exception of fellow students making a point to interject a distinct perspective.

She found that discouraging but was fortunate in having a practicum supervisor who intentionally integrated cultural aspects into their discussions about her clients. She also tried her best to surround herself with like-minded colleagues who appreciated the importance of diversity in all its forms.

Her first encounter with explicit racism in a professional setting was at her second practicum site. The first unit to which she was assigned closed, forcing her to choose another unit to complete the remainder of her practicum experience. The deciding factor in choosing the second unit was that a close friend and colleague who conceptualized clients similarly to her also worked there.

She seemed to enjoy her work with the clients, but she had occasionally shared her grievances about the unit supervisor (a white male) to her. She went to the unit with all of her academic and clinical knowledge, ready to create positive working relationships with her new team. However, it seemed that not everyone shared this perspective of openness and collegiality, particularly the unit supervisor.

Upon her arrival, and over the course of a month and a half, the unit supervisor never spoke to her. Initially, she excused his behaviour as a consequence of him being busy, just not seeing her, or maybe that she failed to greet him loudly enough to hear and see her. But she was also beginning to feel resentful because she was consistently being ignored.

One day, her friend and colleague (a black woman) and she was sitting in a room with two white women while their clients were in groups. The supervisor stopped by and greeted the white women before returning to his office as if her colleague and she were not even present. She later realized that she was not on the supervisor’s list for team emails, and she was missing important updates on her clients. She sent an email to request to be added to the list, their first correspondence ever, occurring nearly two months after her joining the unit.

So, she decided to test things: she made up her mind that she would see the supervisor in passing and greet him loudly so there was no doubt he could hear her. She did this and called him by name with a smile as she passed. He still ignored her. As she continued to walk, he spoke to a white woman who was walking in the same direction as her. At that point, she realized his behaviour was not simply a figment of her imagination. Rather, it had to be racism.

She prides herself on her assertiveness in school and the workplace, and she took comfort in the transparency of the supervisory relationship with her clinical supervisor. During one of their sessions, she decided to confide in him about the way that things had transpired between the unit supervisor and her. She shared the aforementioned examples. As she spoke, my supervisor seemed uncomfortable.

So, she proceeded cautiously with her next statement: “I’m not calling him racist, but the way I have been treated feels like racism.” Her supervisor responded hesitantly and noted that he had heard another person mention the “microaggressions” from other staff on the unit. As he continued to skirt around the issue, I felt frustrated with sharing her experience because he invalidated it by using a term to, essentially, soften the blow — and he did not offer a course for resolution; instead, she offered her own.

When therapy is concerned, I always say, “It is not the responsibility of the client to educate the therapist.” I feel similarly when issues concerning various -isms are involved: it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. Yet that often ends up being the case.

Even in professional and academic spheres, the narratives of the oppressed are frequently excluded and replaced with generic (read: privileged) accounts, placing the onus on marginalized people to inform the privileged about their experiences. Similarly, when the narratives of the oppressed are included, there are many instances wherein the true struggle of oppression is glossed over in efforts to protect the feelings of those who may not empathize with the oppressed group.

In a place where she assumed that her concerns would be validated and that her supervisor would advocate for and with her, she was disappointed by his passivity and efforts to sugarcoat what was obviously racism. She had colleagues who validated her experience and shared their own, but it is extremely difficult to change things for the better without those in positions of power on your side.

I firmly believe that it is necessary for classes and academic spheres to provide intentional spaces for reflections on various systems of oppression, whether that be through case material, personal anecdotes from students or readings that consistently address multicultural issues. It is not enough to have two obligatory courses devoted to diversity while using a blanket approach for other courses.

As students and professors in higher education, we are called to do the work of inclusivity, particularly in academic settings so that it is more easily integrated within our respective spaces in the community. That is not to dismiss the difficult nature of intentional inclusivity, though, as it is hard work. We can only achieve goals of inclusiveness and anti-racism by continually challenging ourselves to learn more, by consistently applying and sharing our new knowledge, and through inviting others to share their personal experiences in safe and validating spaces.

Submitted by Rimsha Bilal, Date 17 January 20201.

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