Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 7)

Intersectionality and Privilege.

My various identities do not operate in a vacuum.  There are times and places in my life that certain identities resonate more than others.  When I have changed geographic locations from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest to the Pacific Coast to Southern Georgia, particular identities were more relevant to my daily life compared to others.  These shifts have led me to explore more about my own identities, especially in relation to others.  It allowed me to see how my various identities intersect with one another.

I understand why being a White, Straight, Cisgender, Able-bodied Male in the United States carries exceptional amounts of privilege.  Most people perceive that I am Christian from my previous identities, so I get a free pass on that one too.

Over time, I realized how fortunate I am.  Quite honestly, how lucky I am.  My identities mean that I virtually cannot be discriminated against.  Outside of my Atheist identity, I do not share any underrepresented identities (based on the ones in the CCP curricula).  This means that I get to operate in the world differently.

My dad never had to have a conversation with me about how to interact with police.  My mom never had to have a conversation with me about the dangers of STIs, specifically HIV/AIDs, in the gay community.  I never had my gender questioned based on what I was wearing.  I never had to map out my walking path to make sure there are ramps and proper lighting.  I have never been afraid to walk alone at night.  I always felt that I could be myself in any situation without being questioned.

A majority of the students I work with share similar identities to my own.  Many have not started to do the work that I have had to do over time.  I do my best to role model for them what it means to have these privileges.  I question them when they make comments.  I ask them to really think about what it means they just said.  I do it in a way they can learn from the conversation.  I do not want to shame them in the process.  I want them to think differently.  I cannot force them to change their point of view; however, I can get them to see another perspective.  I can ask them to look at things from a lens different from their own.  Many have never done that.  A lot of the time it is the first time their views have been challenged.

I have introduced activities to students and facilitated discussions where we explore identity and ask questions about the intersections of these identities.  It is amazing what can happen when the right environment and space is provided.  It has shown me that students are willing to engage in these conversations.  They are often scared to do it on their own without the support that mistakes will be made.  And trust me, mistakes are made and will continue to be made.  They really, really want to learn.  They want to share about themselves.  They want to hear from others.  It is up to us (educators) giving them the time, place, and skills to do this effectively.

The work is difficult, but oh so very important.  We cannot do this work well as professionals unless we are willing to put in the personal commitment.

My privilege and the intersections of my identity allow me to enter this work from a different place.  I am not the “angry, Black woman” or the “gay activist.”  I am a White, Straight, Cisgender, Able-bodied Male that cares about this work because I have grown to understand the importance of being inclusive; allowing people the space to be their true authentic selves.  I have benefitted from that experience.  I know that my advantage, my privilege, is that I have never had to be something that I am not.  Being able to live my true authentic self is liberating and reaffirming.  My goal is to provide spaces and opportunities for others to do the same.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 6)

I saved this one for second to last since I am on the presenting team for Safe Space training at UNF.  I identify as a straight ally.

Through being on the training team, I have learned a lot more about myself and what it means to be an ally for the LGBT community.  Going into this process, I knew a lot more about the L & G components of the acronym. I knew a little about the B and even less about the T. I have friends who are Trans*, yet did not know much.  Over time, I was able to gain more knowledge about these other populations and became more comfortable presenting the material.

Initially, I was scared to present because I felt like an imposter. Since I do not hold one of these identities, would I be seen as credible in presenting on the information and the topic? What frightened me the most was the possibility of presenting to someone who is LGBT and getting something wrong or making a mistake. I did not want to seem like I was unknowledgeable or invalidate someone’s experience because I was sharing incorrect information.

As more trainings occurred, I became more comfortable with the content. I was able to include parts of my own story and journey about becoming an ally for the LGBT community. I was able to explain how I changed over time. I talk about how my past actions were not inclusive to this community, and that is a big reason I now enjoy doing these trainings. I appreciate the opportunity to potentially assist others on their journey to being an ally for the LGBT community.

As I said, I have learned the most about the T component of the LGBT community since coming on the team. This has been a major focus of the trainings since I came on board, and will continue to be important especially in the light of recent laws passed or on the legislative floor in many states. I recently had a lengthy conversation with a Trans* individual about HB2 in North Carolina and the Target boycotts. I know that I would not have been able to have that same conversation when I was in college, over a decade ago.

The journey has been long to be an ally of the LGBT community, but it is nothing in comparison to what many of these individuals face. I have had to unlearn a lot of my previous notions from when I was growing up. I have been successful in doing so, but still have a lot more to learn. I want to take the next step and be an advocate when and where I can for the community. At the same time, I realize and understand that I need to be invited into that space and role by the community. My hope is to start small in this process. Being a part of the training team is one of those ways I have started. I would like to get more involved on a political level with this work, so I am starting to seek those opportunities out as well.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 5)

Gender is something that I am consciously aware of on a daily basis.  Not from the perspective of my own gender, but how my gender affects my interactions with others. Being a man provides me with numerous advantages, and stereotypes, in American society.  I am seen as the “bread winner.”  I am supposed to rough and tough and strong.  I am direct.   I am not allowed to show emotion unless it is rage or anger.  I fight.  I don’t cook or clean.  I know how to use power tools.  I love the outdoors.  I grow a beard.

The latter is a definite for me.  I do know how to use power tools.  I love to be outdoors.  I am not the “bread winner” in my relationship.  My demeanor is reserved.  I show emotions, except for rage and anger.  I cook and clean.  I’ve never been in a fight.

I was part of a dance company when I was growing up, where I performed at competitions in ballet, jazz, and tap.  I was pretty good.  I was accepted to participate in the North Carolina School of the Arts dance program for ballet.  Instead, I decided to play sports in high school.  My brother went on to the Baltimore School of the Arts, and ultimately, School of American Ballet in NYC.  I wasn’t forced to play sports by my parents, I just choose a different path.

I was never told boys don’t cry or don’t play with dolls.  Most of my friends and family growing up were girls, so that’s all there was to play with when I was young.  I cried a lot.

At the end of the day, I am still a man.  Those behaviors did not change who I am.  They did not make me any less of a man.  Others may have called me names and picked on me, and at the time, it was difficult to navigate.  Retrospectively, I did the things I wanted to do, enjoyed, and was good at doing.  I wouldn’t change any of it.

Being a cis-gender man who works with large populations of cis-gender women, there are dynamics that I need to be cognizant.  Because of societal norms, there is power in those relationships that I am aware.  I know that my opinion may be held in a higher regard simply because I am a man.  If I have a similar idea, then how do I support what is being shared by someone else?  How do I make sure the person who deserves credit receives due credit for the contribution?  Sometimes it is simply being aware of how often and how quick I am to speak.  It could be recognizing the amount of physical space I am taking up.  In addition, how am I providing space for others to feel comfortable in sharing views and thoughts?

At the same time, simply being a cisgender individual means that I am privileged in numerous ways compared to Trans* people.  I don’t fear what restroom I can use or what may happen to me while I am in there.  I don’t have to worry about people questioning my appearance or expression of my gender.  I don’t have to worry about people asking me questions about what is, or isn’t, between my legs.  I don’t have to worry about people trying to determine if I have had surgery or not.  I am aware of these interrogations for Trans* people, yet naive to the impact these questions have on people who are constantly asked them.  It something I will never really be able to understand.

National conversations around gender are changing.  Some ways are positive.  Others not so much.  Trans* people are being vilified for using bathrooms.  Women still get paid less than men for comparable work.  Hillary Clinton is attacked for what she is wearing and how she looks.  No other candidate received similar treatment, as that was happening.

Harriet Tubman is going to be on the $20 bill (maybe).  Caitlin Jenner brought conversations around Trans* individuals to the popular world (even though Laverne Cox really led that movement).  These are very small wins that can help in the long run.  But there are still setbacks.  NB2 in North Carolina.  The numerous murders of Trans* individuals with no justice.  The glass ceiling is still very real for women.  Look up public university salaries for comparable positions.  It’s 2016 and we still have a long way to go.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 4)

I am White.  Because of this, I have an extraordinary amount of privilege in the United States of America.  It has taken me a long time to understand what this means.

I was raised with the ideology to “not see color.”  I was raised to tolerate others who were different from me.  Yet, I still spent the vast majority of my time with other White people.  I lived in a White neighborhood.  My friends were White.  We knew non-White people but did not spend much time with them.  Usually, when we were spending time with non-White people it was out of necessity and not always by choice.  I learned the covert ways people perpetuate prejudicial thoughts through language and microaggressions.  I contributed to this.  Sometimes not aware.  Sometimes aware.  I was in an insulated community.  My thoughts and words were never challenged.

Through my time in higher education, I have participated in numerous training sessions on diversity with almost all of them focusing on the idea of race.  At first, I was angry because I felt attacked during many of these sessions.  I felt I was being called racist simply because I was White.  I can remember saying to a staff member, “Just because I am White does not mean that I am racist.  Why do others think that I am?”

A particular fishbowl activity while I was a resident assistant and the subsequent conversations with staff members after the session helped me to really understand what it meant to be White.  More importantly, what it means to be White in America.  I never knew that Whiteness is a racial identity.  That being White has an impact on how people perceive me, how I interact with others, and that I have benefitted tremendously throughout my life because of it.

Once I was exposed to these concepts, I had to do some self-discovery.  I was provided Helm’s White Racial Identity Development Model and things started to make more sense.  I needed to suspend my previous thoughts and notions about race.  I was forced to look at systemic issues that were beyond my control but I still contributed to through complicity.  The most difficult thing to understand is how White privilege has provided me benefits, even if I did not ask for them.  I had to critically analyze my experiences and opportunities to have a better understanding of what this meant.

This rocked me quite a bit.  It has taken some time to understand.  I’ve made mistakes and missteps along the way.  I know that I will continue to make mistakes and missteps as I learn more.  I’ve had to confront friends and family about their words and thoughts.  Over time and through my experiences, I realized that “not seeing color” ignores the realities of other people and how racial identity has a societal impact regardless whether I choose to “see color” or not.  More importantly, I’ve had to confront myself and my own biases.  I continue to do this on a regular basis.  I will need to continue doing this.

I have realized I needed to step out of my “White World” and attempt to look at things through another lens, a non-White perspective.  I have been fortunate to participate in equity, diversity, and inclusion training and conference sessions to further explore this.  I have made more effort to read books by non-White authors.  I watch more shows and movies developed by non-White producers with non-White directors and actors and written by non-White people.  I am far more critical of the stories, TV shows, and movies I digest.  I know that this is minor, but it has helped in trying to better understand the experiences of non-White people in the US.  I will never fully be able to experience or understand, but it is important to me to try.

Luckily, I had mentors and guides to push me along this journey.  They challenged me to think differently.  They provided me with the support I needed when I experienced White guilt.  They called me out on my shit.  They helped me open my eyes to what I was blind to.  Now, I try to pay it forward with the students I work with.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 3)

My next course in the CCP curricula was the session on Worldview and Religious Pluralism.  I am an Atheist.  I was raised Roman Catholic and until my undergraduate years in college, I identified as such.  Most people perceive me as being Christian (likely because of my other visible identities), so it usually leads to some interesting conversations when I tell them otherwise.

I am not completely open about my non-religious identity.  If people ask, then I explain.  My family knows that I am not a practicing Catholic, but the idea of me being Atheist is not brought up.  This was evident at a recent Thanksgiving when I was asked to lead the prayer before dinner.  Instead of making a big deal about it, I was able to divert the prayer to be led by my younger cousins.  I didn’t want to have to get into a discussion about my lack of religious faith with my family at that moment.

To test the waters, I have talked with my mother about getting married not in a church and raising my children without a particular religion.  She has been supportive of both initiatives without me having to say it’s because I am an Atheist.  Ultimately, I don’t think it is a big deal for my immediate family considering that none of them are currently practicing Catholicism.

Where this has been most interesting was when I first started dating my partner, Lauren.  Luckily, my non-religious identity was not an issue for her.  She just had questions about what it meant to be Atheist.  I’ve also had her friends ask me questions about it as well.  On one occasion, I was questioned by Lauren’s aunt during Easter, which was slightly awkward.  However, I carefully navigated that one and avoided any disruption in the day’s events.

Depending on the audience, I simply explain that I do not believe in God or another higher being or power.  I believe in evidence and proof.  This stems from my background and passion for science.  To this point, I have not seen evidence or proof that would support a God(s).  I also explain that my non-belief in God does not mean that there cannot be one.  There could still be a God(s).  I just don’t think that there is.

I feel it is also important to point out that my non-belief does not trump someone’s belief.  We are allowed to have our own opinions, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.  I also don’t try to convince people that there is no God(s).  Again with religious pluralism and worldview, it’s not my place to convince a person what they should believe or not believe.  It is up to them to decide for themselves and what makes sense for them.

Being Atheist means that I am a part of one of the most distrusted groups in America and cannot hold public office in a handful of states.  But intolerance is experienced by all religious and non-religious groups.  How that intolerance manifests itself is different, but it still exists.  What is scary is how people twist and manipulate their beliefs to meet an end that is not representative of the core tenets of the belief.  It is in these circumstances that I am most fearful.

My self-exploration to identify as Atheist has led me to be more aware of other religious and non-religious identities.  I have become more cognizant of the language that I use and attempt to avoid major religious holidays (specifically non-Chrisitan) when planning events, programs, and training sessions.  I still have a lot to learn and have taken steps along my own journey to try and better stand those of non-Christian faiths.  I have read about and experienced practices of a few these to try and understand more.  And this is something I plan to continue doing as I grow and mature in my own Atheist identity.  Even though I do not believe, I still think that it is important to understand why others do and what they believe.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 2)

This next reflection is based on areas I had the least level of knowledge prior to starting CCP, as I am currently able bodied with no learning disabilities and have no military identity.  The session I am referencing was associated with the Military Veterans Resource Center (MVRC) and Disability Resource Center (DRC) at UNF, which was co-led by the directors of each office.  Reflecting back on this session, I learned a lot about services provided at UNF through these two offices and these often hidden student identities.

Referring back to the iceberg from my previous post, disability and military identities can often be hidden identities.  Students may be forthcoming about these identities but often choose not to self-disclose.  Both offices mentioned the difficulty in identifying these students as they are only aware if students specifically seek those resources or use a benefit associated with the identity like the GI Bill.  In fact, UNF has an extremely high population of students with a military-based affiliation, mainly because of the institution’s friendliness to these individuals and the vast number of military outfits in the Jacksonville area.  However, the MVRC indicated that it interacts with maybe half of the population.

It is easy to not think about these identities in the development of programs and training sessions; especially students with disabilities.  Students who are deaf/hard of hearing or with visual impairments are often not considered in the planning process.  Creating elements for websites that are screen reader accessible can be time-consuming and difficult.  Even though there are laws that require these accommodations to be provided, it is not always a part of the normal planning process.  This awareness is important.  If we want to create an environment that is inclusive, we need to ask ourselves these questions.  How do we provide these resources?  How can we ensure our programs, training sessions, and events are accessible to all students who want to participate?

In particular, many students with disabilities do not have physical disabilities, even though these often are what we think of when we think of disability.  Learning disabilities are far more prevalent on campus and is where the vast majority of support provided by the DRC goes.  Are we creating programs and training sessions that allow for different learning styles?

From this session, I have found myself to be more conscious of my conversations with students who share these identities with me and more aware of how I try to create inclusive spaces for these students to participate.  More and more students have disclosed their military identity since attending this session and we are seeing more students with this identity pursue membership in fraternity/sorority groups.  At the same time, we know that more students are coming to campus with various learning disabilities, so understanding how we can support these students and provide them necessary resources to be successful is vitally important.

Ultimately, both offices expressed the importance of helping guide students to the resources they are capable of providing.  After attending the CCP session, I worked with both offices to have follow-up sessions to meet the rest of the staff and visit their offices, as a part of in-service training for our office staff.  I felt it was important to learn more about each office and find ways we could connect students from our area to the resources in their offices if the opportunity presented itself.

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Cultural Competency Pursuit Capstone (Part 1)

This will be another series of posts, this time, focused on the Cultural Competency Pursuit (CCP) professional development program at UNF.  Each post will be a reflection associated with a different session of CCP.  In total, there are seven posts that will be rolling out over the next couple of weeks.

CCP begins with an introductory 101 course.  I experienced this as one of the initial participants, so there has been some change over the years.  One of the more impactful parts of this session was the privilege walk.  Considering the session was held with all staff members, it was interesting to see when people were taking steps forward or backward.  It highlighted how we make certain assumptions about people simply based on our perception of them.  We can easily construct a narrative based on small, professional interactions.  Until we take the time to have a conversation, we only know what is on the surface.  Similar to an iceberg, we see 10% of the person and tend to assume the rest without taking the time to really get to understand and know them.

It is in this space, creating the time and opportunity to interact with someone beyond the surface, that we generate authentic relationships.  These authentic relationships lead to us, as professionals, being better at our work.  We are now role modeling the behaviors we expect from our students.  It takes trust and a willingness to be vulnerable.  Aren’t these qualities we want our students to develop?  We are demonstrating the ways they can engage with difference.  We are more likely to produce truly collaborative work with others.  All of these reasons have an impact on our students, either directly or indirectly.  They also make the work environment more friendly and welcoming.  It helps to retain staff members.

The importance of training staff on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion is immeasurable.  CCP is allowing the staff at UNF to establish a common language around these topics and do the work we need to do in order to better serve our students and ultimately the institution.  The various training sessions will make us more aware and knowledgeable on the different identities that are associated with the curricula.  We all have work to do and it is our professional and personal responsibility to put in the time and effort.

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