Words can inspire us to think beyond our own scope. They have an interesting ability to stir urgency in our imagination whether read or heard. The intent behind words may result in an impact that thrusts us into reflection, makes us research the unknown, or find peace with ourselves. Unfortunately, the negative impact of words can deconstruct self-esteem, leading people into unhealthy paths of uncertainty. Whether it is a family member, teacher, or corner store cashier we will forever share space with the words people send into the atmosphere around us. Word choice as a student affairs professional is critical in shaping environments to best serve the needs of our students and colleagues. I have been privileged to encounter people whose words struck everlasting meaning for who I am, why I am, and what I’m meant to do. So, I share with you words that have enhanced my work as a student affairs professional; especially as they have impacted my male identity.
Who I Am
Black – My Parents:
My parents provided a safe and loving home where my siblings and I could grow into intelligent and compassionate members of our community; we were also aware of being black. I knew my skin color was darker than some of the kids in my neighborhood and my hair was thicker than a number of my classmates in elementary school. “You are black son, which means you will get treated differently. You’re going to have to work harder because of the color of your skin” is a vivid conversation I had with my father. My parents never alluded to being black as less or better than anyone else, but they did prepare me for going into a world with systems that were not designed for my success. I was taught to be proud of where I came from, to embrace being different, and that some people would be uncomfortable with my success.
Students come to college with varying understandings of their identities. Their experiences have shaped what they know to be true, and we are tasked to broaden their view of the world. It is an important responsibility that requires honesty and thoughtfulness. Honesty with ourselves to own the assumptions and biases we bring into the job, and thoughtfulness in creating opportunities for students to make their own meaning with the intersections of their multiple identities. We can help students find liberation in authenticity by empowering them to embrace who they are. Specifically, I often searched for black male faculty and staff who I could connect with in college because I knew they could relate with my own experiences and help me be as successful as they were. My parents were intentional about preparing me to enter the world as a young black man. Some black male students do not have the same privilege and I have made it my duty to equip them as best as possible.
Why I Am
An Advocate – Ex Girlfriend:
At 15 years of age I did not know what I was doing in regards to sexual activity. Nonetheless, exploration through kissing seemed to be the favorite activity between my girlfriend and I at the time. That was until she whispered something terrifying into my ear one evening. Her parents were gone and we were making out; but when I pulled her in closer “you know you want to rape me” entered my ear. Frozen with astonishment I paused momentarily to think about what she said, then gathered my things and left. I was trying to process what happened and why it happened to me. Soon after I ended that relationship and blocked out what happened. However, reflecting back on the scenario has contributed to my urgency to advocate for experiences of men.
I am in a critical position to create a safe space where students can share their experiences to find healing and community. Young men don’t see enough messages that empower them to talk about what they’ve been through. Additionally, they aren’t challenged to question their own experiences and see the varying perspectives that contribute to those experiences. At that time I did not think about what my ex-girlfriend had been through to say that or question if I had contributed to her feeling the need to say that so we could take our relationship to the next level. Because of this experience I can relate with the realities that men live in and challenge them to think beyond the surface which hopefully opens their eyes to the systems of oppression that are harmful to themselves and women.
What I’m Meant To Do
Life Saver – Former Student:
In graduate school I was an instructor for an identity and diversity course. One student in particular wrote a paper about her struggle with harming herself and the stress college caused in resurrecting those thoughts. I turned to my supervisor who walked me through getting the student the resources she needed, thankfully I was able to connect her with the campus counseling center. I saw her from time to time throughout the year after she finished my class. The next summer I received an email from her that outlined what she had been through throughout the year. Her battle with self-harm had taken her through a rollercoaster of experiences, but her testimony was the best part of the email.
“You may not have known when you asked me if I wanted to come in and talk, but you saved my life. Also I got a new tattoo this semester! It’s a semicolon on the inside of my pointer finger. I got it because semicolons are used when a sentence could have been ended but it wasn’t. You are my semicolon, and I will be forever grateful”.
This is one of the greatest experiences in my professional career and is why why I’m an educator. However, I was very nervous about being in a room with a female student discussing such a personal experience. I knew regardless of gender identity, some students felt more comfortable sharing experience with individuals they identified with. Fortunately, by being aware of signs she portrayed, listening to what was and wasn’t saying, and directly asking the difficult questions, she felt safe enough to share her experiences with me.
Why Words Matter
These stories have validated the work I do. When a student is strong enough to work through the mess life hands them, I have done my job. I am thankful to the people who have spoken words into my life that did not plan on making an impact, and to the many advisors and educators who have asked the difficult questions that forced me to take action in my own life. People listen with more than their ears; factors such as stature, race and ethnicity, positionality, and character influence how one interprets what you say. My identity as a black man in higher education makes a statement without me saying anything; because of that I recognize the power behind my own words and I must be mindful of how, when, and in what environment I say things.