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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Tia Sherèe Gaynor
November 4, 2016
My last four columns were dedicated to discussing social (in)justice issues and illuminating the responsibility of public administration and administrators in addressing those issues. The next two columns will focus less on issues and more on strategies that can create inclusive environments that work to eradicate injustice. The thoughts offered below are the result of conversing, studying, reading, researching and living.
Step 1. Be aware of how you may perpetuate stereotypes and work to avoid doing so.
Oftentimes in our personal and professional lives, and without even knowing it, we perpetuate stereotypes through our words and actions. I offer the following vignette to help illustrate this point:
My partner and I enjoy traveling and as such have visited several European countries. In at three separate instances, our travel was connected, by complete strangers, to an assumption that we played basketball. The first instance occurred while traveling to the Italian beach town of Viareggio. A woman (with a northeastern U.S. accent) asked us for which basketball team did we play. This query was not a part of a longer conversation. In fact, we were not greeted with a “hello” or “ciao,” but instead “which team do you play for?” The second incident occurred while walking down a street in Florence. A man speaking with an Italian accent repeatedly yelled out “WNBA” as we passed by. The third incident occurred when visiting Budapest, Hungary. Two U.S. born white women asked which basketball team we played for as we waited for a cab. As two, above average height women of color, we get this reaction, unfortunately, often.
Some may see these comments as innocent, after all, you are both tall and tall people play basketball. It’s important to understand that we have all been socialized to categorize others without even knowing it. However, allowing socialization to infiltrate your actions and make assumptions about individuals or groups create environments that marginalize those whom you’ve made assumptions about. In these instances, stereotypes of my partner and me as athletes were pervasive in the minds of those individuals. Automatically, they thought our presence in Europe was strictly associated with being a member of a basketball team. Rather than think they are traveling in Europe on their own volition, the thought was they must play basketball. In each instance, the overwhelming idea was that the only avenue to Europe, for us, was via a team.
I offer these examples to demonstrate the ease we unknowingly stereotype individuals based on our own cognitive limitations and cultural unawareness. The people in the examples above perpetuated stereotypes and committed microagressions while seemingly behaving innocuously. Regular exposure to macro and microagressions have long-term and traumatic implications for those who experience them. For this reason, it is important that when operating within professional and social settings, one must ask themselves if their actions are reiterating stereotypes. Are the stories being told, the textbooks being required, and the policies being implemented help to reiterate stereotypes?
Step 2. Experiences that are not your own are valid, do not invalidate them.
Critical Race Theory—the theoretical framework that examines society through the intersection of race, law and power—argues that race, praxis, voice (or the lived experience), history, and interpretation are integral components of social inquiry. An individual’s voice and lived experience, particularly those whose experiences are marginalized, are rarely considered important and worthy of consideration.
Understanding and recognizing the validity of an individual’s experience is critical to effectively create inclusive environments. In a professional setting, a colleague may share an experience they had while at work. While this experience may not be one that you have experienced or understand, your reaction and response to such an experience should not be dismissive. For example, a female colleague shares with you that their male counterpart regularly cuts them off and speaks over them during meetings. In your response, you tell them that you feel they are overreacting and overly sensitive. Such a response marginalizes the experience being shared and reduces your colleague’s willingness to trust that you value their experiences.
In an academic environment, a female student of color chooses to share, during your class, a situation where another professor touches (without permission) her hair. Some professors would choose to avoid the discussion, while others may choose to defend their colleague’s actions. These responses do not reaffirm your student’s experience nor treat it as valid. In fact, both of these reactions represent examples of Othering, where an individual (and their experience) is treated as marginal.
Creating inclusive professional and academic environments are at the core of fostering equity. In order to do so effectively, we all (at the individual level) must take responsibility for our actions. The process to see and acknowledge one’s own behavior is not an easy one. Individuals must first work to be self-aware, cognizant of their actions, and be willing to recognize and actively address marginalizing behaviors.
Being conscious of the ways in which we may perpetuate stereotypes or invalidate another’s experiences is a significant step in developing one’s own cultural competence, and consequently creating environments that are inclusive for everyone. Culturally inclusive organizations are made up of culturally inclusive people. It is our responsibility to make professional and educational environments inclusive.
Author: Tia Sherèe Gaynor (preferred pronouns are she/her/hers) is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration in the School of Management at Marist College. Dr. Gaynor’s research seeks to examine issues of social justice and equity within a U.S. and global context. Her scholarship can be categorized in 3 research streams: resident participation and engagement; public and social policy analysis and implementation; and pedagogy, learning and instruction.
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