I was involved in a discussion about use of the “go-to” privilege article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh for a RA Class. There was debate on if this material, along with a step in the circle exercise, was the best direction for the class. During the discussion someone mentioned that step in the circle experiences often impacted students negatively, and had a tendency to take a bad turn regardless of facilitator skill level. The response to this person’s experience was that they should re-examine the questions that were developed for the class, and that most of the existing questions were not about race or socioeconomic status. I then heard myself say “Isn’t everything about race and socioeconomic status?” I can’t think of a time that I was talking about privilege when you could separate race or talk about the topic without talking about socioeconomic status. This discussion/debate made me think about how we at times get too wrapped up in teaching others that we ourselves forget to do the work that we are teaching about. There is an assumption that when you work in student affairs that you come with a built in appreciation, and beyond surface level understanding of diversity, and today that has been transferred over to social justice. If you are in the field long enough people assume that you are well-versed enough to start teaching others. These assumptions become problematic as you have some that are speaking and supporting topics that they are no longer taking steps to grow and develop in. Just listening to issues or concerns of social justice presented by students does not make us any more socially just. It makes us people who live vicariously through other people’s experiences. It allows us to live in a bubble that says that racism exists but not within our teams, our departments—we are the ones in the white hats as Olivia Pope says on the TV show Scandal. We assume that we are the good guys who support and challenge the inequity and actively try to stomp out its existence. There are times that we in students affairs need to burst our own bubble and get down and do the work again.
I am proud to say that I worked in an environment that worked hard to burst that bubble for me every day and encouraged me to burst others’ bubbles. Twice a month there were social justice in-services provided by the Student Affairs division and my own residence life department for both staff and students. In the course of my time at this institution the value and importance of social justice was clear. It was also clear that if you could not actively engage in your own development then it might not be the best fit-this was something that was a standard for staff and student leaders within the department. As residence life professionals the team of 15 graduate and full time professionals took a full day to do our own unpacking of knapsacks through a facilitated workshop where we talked about our own privileges and biases. If we don’t start with ourselves then how could we expect our RAs or residents to engage in their own journey?
This consistent development has put me in a position to be mindful not to go too long without doing a self-check in, and not to wait for a training to come around so that I can check it off of my beginning of the year to do list. As we are actively engaging in the recruitment and selection process of our colleagues I ask us to think about the social justice questions we are asking and the answers that we are looking for. Is the person really talking about an experience that they were actively engaged with or are they sharing someone else’s story? Talking about issues of social justice is hard, especially when we do self-reflection, but it’s a topic that we as professionals need to continue to discuss in order to push ourselves to grow. We have to talk so that we can continue to challenge and support our students in their ever changing understanding and engagement on this topic.