University of Michigan CRLT Players Performance at UMBC, March 31, 2016
Yesterday, the University of Michigan’s Center for Research, Learning, and Teaching (CRLT) Players gave two performances of the sketch “Navigating Departmental Politics” at UMBC. The performances spoke to a range of implicit biases and unequal power dynamics that fuel toxic departmental climates and stymie the success and advancement of many faculty, particularly that of individuals from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented (read: excluded) in the academy (e.g., women, African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, LGBTQ etc., ). Since the performances, I have been thinking a lot about my role within the institution and what more I can do to build coalitions of allies and encourage others to assume the active role of change-agent, as we collectively work to recruit, retain, and advance an inclusively excellent professoriate at UMBC and higher education in general. In this spirit, my primary audience for this reflective piece are my friends and colleagues from majority groups.
As someone whose has dedicated her career to implementing meaningful change to disrupt these glaring inequalities, at times, I found the Players’ performance uncomfortable and painful to watch. As a white woman, I know that my pain is inconsequential compared to pain of those audience members who could directly and tangibly identify with these scenarios from their own personal experiences of erasure, dismissal, denial, isolation, and disempowerment. I think that individuals from majority groups, such as myself, also have an unexamined privilege in our expressions of pain around these issues and many times our inability, unwillingness, or fear, to take actions to address problems related to departmental climate. Critical self-reflexivity, as it relates to privilege, is uncomfortable, it is supposed to be, however, it is a two-part exercise. Acknowledging shortcomings and areas for improvements are not enough, you must also take action—change yourself and others. Anyone can hold up a mirror, but the question that remains is whether or not one is willing to put the effort into changing the image or to simply acknowledge their unhappiness with it. I think the Players’ performance offered a moment for many to perhaps hold that mirror up for the first time and my hope is that these vignettes will spur crucial conversations and hard questions around these topics, but most importantly I want to see meaningful action and the emergence of allies from majority groups taking responsibility for climate issues and working to, where necessary, (re) create departmental climates into atmospheres in which ALL faculty members’ voices are heard, and in which all faculty can thrive and reach their fullest career potential.
So what has that typically looked like to me thus far:
Many colleagues and others from majority groups (majority really depends on the politics of the location, but in academia majority often is White or Asian and primarily heterosexual men, and in some cases White and primarily heterosexual women) often ask me 1) “So what are the issues?”—- for example, “How does the issues women and STEM face differ from the issues that women of color in STEM face, or LGBT issues.” Often, after my explanation, the follow up questions are some variation of 2) “Well what can I do? because a) “I do not experience X issue” or, b) “I have not seen X issue in play”, or c) “I support equality but these are really difficult dialogues to insert myself into,” especially because 1) “I do not experience this problem” or, “I am not the right person lead on this change,” or the uber negative “Nothing I do is going to change anything.”
Privilege It’s a Vicious Cycle and We All Suffer
This brings us back to the topic of examined privilege, the privilege, comfort, and unchallenged complacency that those from majority groups are afforded through in their inaction or more specifically their privilege in having a choice to not act. Many use “the follow-up diversity conversation” as a mechanism to avoid action, create a quick out, punt dealing with problem to someone else (i.e., underrepresented faculty and/or people in my professional position), or in some cases people really do not know what to do. They believe that having this conversation absolves them of culpability in creating the problem, but they fail to realize that while they may not be culpable for having implicit biases (we all have them) their failure to take action makes them part of the problem and makes the problem larger. It is also a fallacy to believe that those from majority groups do not have anything at stake or consequences for not calling out and naming implicit biases, and actively working to improve climate. We all suffer from inaction, some more than others, with privilege mitigating the suffering of majority groups.
What Next? To my Friends, Colleagues, and Allies, from the Majority:
These are difficult dialogues and implementing solutions and enacting change is not going to be easy or quick and I know there are some of you that genuinely do not know what to do or what you can do. If you fall into this category, let’s talk, but then let’s act! We must work together and (re) shape departmental climates into the images that we want to see reflected back in the mirror. It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable, I know this, I get this, I have lived this, but progress only happens when we take risks and get out of our comfort zones. Also, I want to acknowledge the work of those allies from majority groups who are already working to make change. Keep it up! If, however, you are still on the sidelines, I hope you consider this piece an open invitation to ACTIVELY engage with me and others to develop and implement changes create climates anchored in inclusive excellence in which we can all thrive.