One of the most useful ways to observe race, gender, and sexuality dynamics in the higher education workplace is to observe and notice space. Notice the physical space: Who is in the room? What identities do they present? What physical space do they take up? And notice the verbal space: Who speaks the most? The least? The loudest? Who interrupts who?
NASPA’s Annual Conference is designed to bring together the many different student affairs disciplines to network and share research addressing key themes and areas within our slice of higher education. Sometimes student affairs practitioners assume that because we work in an educational space, the majority of us are therefore self-aware and can’t possibly engage in behavior that can be isolating and oppressive…especially at a national conference for our field. To try to dig into this assumption, we decided that one of the ways we would approach the NASPA conference in New Orleans this past week would be to observe space, and in particular, observe the physical and verbal race space of the conference. What follows are some of our observations in vignette style.
In one session, the presenters were one white woman and one Latina woman. During the Q&A session, a Black woman was speaking. The presenters indicated to a white man that he would be next to speak, and he began his comment before the Black woman finished speaking. Soon after, the presenters pointed to me (Judy, white woman) since I was raising my hand to speak. As I opened my mouth, the same white man from earlier spoke. The presenters did not interrupt him. I was not asked again to share my comment, and I stayed silent. This man clearly felt that the verbal space was his above others.
What do we wish had happened in this moment? The presenters could have used their front-of-room status to interrupt the interrupter, could have said, “Let’s let our colleague finish” and then “Oh, actually that person raised their hand so I want to let her speak.” Both of these small phrases would have called attention to the dismissal and entitlement the white man was enacting.
In another session, three men were presenting, two white and one Black. The Black man was a graduate student working with white man number 1. When the Black man was sharing his piece, white man number 1 interrupted him three separate times to add other notes. White man number 1 never interrupted the other white man, nor was white man number 1 ever interrupted by either of his colleagues. We are sure that these two white individuals thought they were proving their colleague with a great opportunity by presenting at NASPA, but ally-ship and coalition building requires more than just allowing people of color to be there. It also requires one to think and act intentionally in these spaces and to be aware of how power and privilege play a role even in space deemed supportive and inclusive.
In between sessions, walking between the various conference buildings, we experienced a sea of different skin tones. NASPA attendees were Black, many shades of brown, and white. This was in great contrast to the front of most rooms. The majority of the sessions Judy attended were led by white people, and slightly more white men than white women at the front of the rooms. While the majority of the sessions Luz attended were led by people of color, this was due to her area of focus and her intention to seek affirming spaces in her work and within higher education. Oftentimes, administrators of color are one of few – if not the only – on their respective campus, and national conferences provide an opportunity to connect, build community, and share experiences.
Certainly these types of observations are not new to many individuals who have been on the receiving end of these microaggressions, but they are still important to note and discuss. Looking at the NASPA conference space through an intentional race lens was really fascinating and informative–we highly recommend it! It made us ask a lot of questions about what we were seeing. If white people, particularly white men, are mostly the ones in the front of rooms, what does that say about who controls the knowledge of the student affairs field in higher education? What does that say about who can be an expert? What does that say about who our students see as experts, as authorities? We in no way purport to have conducted a thorough ethnographic study of NASPA. What we offer instead is what stood out to us when we were thinking intentionally about race and space at the conference. What stood out to you? What did you experience through a race lens?
> BONUS <
Podcast with Maryann Krieglstein on Social Justice & White Privilege