Defense is not always our best offense: Practical Race and Diversity

Posted by Danny Pforte

Two weeks ago, students and faculty met to suggest to the administration measures that would alleviate the tension on campus that has recently made students of color feel uncomfortable and even unsafe. Some suggestions included institutionalizing IGR (Intergroup Relations), reworking the First Year Experience (FYE) program with the goal of fostering more interaction between different social groups in mind and reevaluating the methods and practices of the Discovery Tour. Although the administration claimed to be interested in making changes, many of their responses to these suggestions made them seem reluctant.

When students called for FYE to take a more rigorous approach to encouraging interaction between minority students and the more privileged majority, Beau Breslin responded by asking students to give him suggestions as to how he should do so. He explained that additions to the program will result in subtraction as well. The dean of Special Programs (among other administrators) summarized what his role is in the college's mission for diversity. Mary Lou Bates defended the Discovery Tour, explaining its effectiveness in bringing a diverse student body to Skidmore's campus.

The Discovery Tour may bring more students of color to campus, but it doesn't ensure that they will be comfortable upon arrival. Simply having a more diverse student body does little to alter peoples' narrow view of those of us who are and have been marginalized because of our identities. A former student argued that interaction between student groups needs to be forced. Otherwise, our campus climate will only worsen.

Furthermore, when needs are expressed to people in a position of power, they should not be met with defensiveness. This attitude defeats the purpose of these discussions and slows the process of resolving this issue. Breslin asked for suggestions from students on how to make FYE more effective in convincing students to "check privilege at the door," but this responsibility cannot be thrown back at the group requesting change. If we are going to promote interaction between student groups, FYE would be a great place to start, since it is one of the few required programs for freshmen.

Also, the administration needs not remind us of their job. We should know their purpose from the moment we step onto campus for the first time. If there was a general consensus that the administration was doing a good job at dealing with campus climate issues regarding diversity, then a community meeting wouldn't have been necessary in the first place.

As individuals of a college community and a complex society, it is time for us to be creative. I have coined the term "action listening"?to describe something that I believe needs to be practiced if serious change is going to happen at Skidmore and in the larger society. Action listening is the opposite of the defensive and sometimes indifferent attitude that concerned students were met with at the meeting.

Action listening also means that when needs are expressed by members of the community, everyone listens and attempts to find a common opinion that will lead to productive action. Solutions go awry when the argument consists of upholding the norm, or the societal and institutional inequalities that minority students must deal with everyday of their lives. Without steps toward tangible action, the social tensions underlying our campus will remain. As Social Work professor Peter McCarthy stated at the forum, we were having these same conversations 30 years ago.

Fed up with the lack of progress, a few students stood up and voiced the personal struggles that they as students of color have faced on this campus. These struggles are real, and they are not going away without listening coupled with action. I hope that both those at the forum and those reading this feel the same way.

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