Talks about social justice are frequently considered to be macro scale campus wide interventions (ex. the creation of a new civility campaign, or a take-back-the-night style initiative). Often times I have found individual administrators forget the awesome powers they hold for one-on-one interventions. In my experience, many of my most important SoJu conversations have happened almost on accident. Many people take issue with the idea of trickledown economics, but when considering social justice, I think the power of the hand-me-down is a viable enterprise.
A semester ago I was working with students on a Probation Review Committee reviewing cases. After what turned out to be one of our quicker reviews, one of the students stuck around to chat. “I think I did something bad on Halloween.” The student hadn’t even finished the sentence before every ounce of my being was preparing for quick and inconspicuous evacuation, I didn’t have enough coffee for where I thought this conversation was going. Working in a conduct office had led me to understand that the equation students + Halloween often resulted in a negative remainder. After a pause he continued, “Well, I just think, really…” There might still be nail marks on the table where I was clenching while they tried to get the thought out. “I think my costume was maybe offensive.”
I took a deep breath. This conversation was one was I was prepared to have. The student explained that for Halloween they’d dressed up as a Native American, headdress, war paint, et al. Having completed my undergraduate degree at Florida State, I was more than prepared to discuss the multitude of reasons why cultural appropriate was offensive and iniquitous. What was most surprising though, was that it wasn’t necessary to dip into the litany of social justice theory I carry around in my SA utility belt, and in fact if I had done so, I think our conversation would have been much less fruitful.
I started the conversation off with a favorite of many an SA professional; “Why?” Why did they feel it was offensive, and why if they felt that, wasn’t it enough to stop them in the first place. The student explained that from the moment they started getting dressed they felt that feeling in the pit of their stomach that something wasn’t right. I then asked, If you have to think twice before doing something because you feel it might be wrong, doesn’t it just make sense then to not do it. You would have thought Elvis himself materialized, flick the student on the forehead, and vanished again given the look on their face.
Sure, this seems like an all too easy fix for the deep-rooted problem of cultural appropriation, and it is. But on an individual level, when the world is expecting such quick turnover and decision-making time from our students, how much time are we allowing them to process what they’re feeling. This student isn’t the first, and absolutely won’t be the last, that could have made smarter, more sound decisions had they just allowed themselves the opportunity to listen to what they were in fact telling themselves.
Now, I certainly wasn’t going to let the space for deeper education go to waste, so I talked with the student at length about why dressing up as a Native America on Halloween, or for a football game, or really ever, is inappropriate. I explained the following parallel, making sure to point out that it lacks the severity of what is often happening with cultural appropriation. I asked the student to imagine seeing another person in the uniform of the sport they play, shot-gunning beers and parodying the hard work they put in. Then I said, imagine if that sport had hundreds of years of cultural significance and tradition dating back to your earliest ancestors. It didn’t begin to encompass it all, but it scratched the surface.
Our students have all the information in the world available at their fingertips. So many times, if we take the conversations out of the sometimes-nebulous world of theory and jargon, and present it colloquially, we are doing them a far greater service. I would so much rather my students have the power to pause, consider, and maybe even do a quick Google search before acting rather than know the inner workings of Bloom’s Taxonomy. And any time I’m available for a materializing-Elvis-moment is another day I consider myself lucky to be in this field.