What I Get To Do Today

Alton Sterling was shot and killed by the police yesterday. There are already reports trying to justify why he was killed in the parking lot of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, LA. Those reports don’t matter to me because it’s like justifying the police’s ability to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Which, no matter what the flaws are within our criminal justice system, is not how any of this works. 

Mr. Sterling’s death reminds me of the things I get to do today that he won’t. I woke up this morning to shower irritated with myself for not going to bed earlier. I made breakfast with my wife and then she dropped me off at the Metro so I can go to work. 

I get to be cranky with people on the metro and hold the door for others. I get to talk with people and interact about whatever we want to talk about. I get to move freely through DC without someone’s negative assumptions of me impacting my life in a meaningful way. I get to be upset by the heat in DC and wipe my brow of sweat.

I will get to exist without anyone diving into my history. No one is doing a deep dive into my past to try to justify my death. I get to sit and type this reflection on my feelings in reaction to Mr. Sterling’s death. I get to about how his murder is connected to the murder of my own father.

I get to write letters to the Department of Justice for them to investigate new ways of training the police departments across the US and the federal law enforcement agencies. I get to ask Lorette Lynch to consider addressing implicit bias in the justice system that disproportionately imprisons and kills people of color across the US.

I get to exist.
I get to live.
I get to feel.
I get to think.
I get to challenge.
I get to push.
I get to question.
I get to be me in ways so many people across the world are denied.
I have full access to my humanity and life today. Alton Sterling does not. We all need to consider how we deal with that information. I’m torn up about it and I feel the need to do something about it because another life has turned into a hashtag. We need to consider how to change the roots of how our civil servants work for us. We need to consider how our systems don’t serve us all in the same way. We need to accept criticism and recognize that nothing is free from criticism and dissent. Expressing dissatisfaction with the way things are is one of the foundations of our society.  

I’m dissatisfied and I’m telling people about it. What are you doing today?

Social Justice in Student Affairs

What happens when we consider that we are all responsible for creating an inclusive community on our campus for all of our students? This inclusive campus needs to be mindful of the ways in which different dimensions of identities are impacted by our work.

We know that Social Justice is a process and a goal as established in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. “The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social Justice includes a vision of society that is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (Adams, Bell, and Griffin; 2007). As student affairs educators our main focus is to create a campus community for our students and I posit that using this definition of Social Justice should be a foundation for establishing that community. This means a lot about how foundation of our communities need to start, but I’m focusing on how we as professional educators need to interact with this definition and the shaping of our community.

Many of us in Student Affairs think of social justice education (SJE) in a limited way. We think of SJE as specific trainings or workshops. We think of programs where we invite speakers to campus who talk about privilege, power, and oppression. We think about our colleagues who do this work daily in multicultural affairs offices (and we often put the brunt of the work of creating inclusive campuses on our multicultural affairs colleagues). We do a disservice to SJE (and our students, colleagues, and selves) when we think of it in such limiting terms because it’s much much more than one time workshops. It needs to be an integrative part of how we operate in all of student affairs.

In addition to the limited scope of Social Justice Education, when we do engage we generally focus on interpersonal dynamics such as microaggressions but we don’t talk about the systems of oppression that create the culture in which we all internalize and perpetuate microaggressions without even noticing. We talk with students about being “inclusive” (which has really just become addressing language, which is not bad but limited) but we don’t talk about how to avoid recreating the oppressive systems of power and privilege on our campuses whether that be through roommate mediations, program planning, orientation sessions, or relationship development.

While I do not disagree that SJE exists within specific trainings about privilege and oppression we can’t let that be the only time when we discuss privilege and oppression. We frequently think that SJE is going to happen for us and don’t take the time to engage in the difficult work of challenging discrimination and oppression on our campuses. We don’t think about the procedures we have in place and how they impact marginalized students in our communities. We usually tell our students to attend programs about black history month or women’s history month or pride week on our campuses but we don’t go ourselves. We promote programs during heritage months but we don’t talk about real life issues as they happen. We frequently miss opportunities to have difficult conversations with our students, colleagues, and selves based on the events that are occurring around us such as the #BlackLivesMatters movement, the Chapel Hill Shooting, the huge number of Trans* women of color who have been killed in 2015, and the movement for undocumented student support.

In addition to missing more obvious opportunities to learn, I have always mentally compartmentalized the different parts of my job. Until recently, student conduct meetings operated in a mental silo separate from planning programs. I think this reflects how we go through training as professionals. We don’t talk about how the coaching skills that we use in a conduct meeting should (and do!) directly relate to how we develop the learning outcomes for programs. We just have a session on the schedule that shows us how to use the conduct software and what we legally have to cover in that conduct meeting to make sure that due process is met (this is not to dismiss the importance of due process). We don’t always talk as much about what the developmental conversation should look like and how that thought process should mirror what we do when planning for programs or how we supervise staff. How does the intersection of my identities influence my interactions with my students? Am I aware of my internalized biases? How do I continue to learn about those internalized biases and notice when they occur? And this is just on the individual level, there is more work to be done across our divisions and departments.

I would like to challenge all of my colleagues working in student affairs across the world to consider how we can integrate social justice education values into our day to day work. This means a wide range of concepts from interrupting microaggressions that we witness and perpetuate (especially when they’re environmental microaggressions) to recognizing and changing systemic issues that create disadvantages for our students. One activity in particular that I was recently introduced to through Vernon Wall and Kathy Obear was to think about a particular service or program and consider how it does or does not serve particular identities. For example, consider an orientation session. How does that session serve all of the students who attend? Does the skit speak to a wide variety of the experiences of students on campus or just those in dominant identities? How does the registration cost impact students from a lower socio-economic background? How are undocumented students supported? What about Trans* students and their assignments in overnight housing? Without asking important questions about our services and programs we recreate systems of oppression on our campuses.

What happens when we consider that we are all responsible for creating an inclusive community on our campus for all of our students? This inclusive campus needs to be mindful of the ways in which different dimensions of identities are impacted by our work. We cannot continue to plan our programs and services in a “colorblind” manner in which we don’t consider all of the dimensions of identities. Without this important change we continue to recreate oppressive systems that exist throughout our society on campus.

How can we collaborate across departments and divisions to create campus communities that are inclusive for all of our students, faculty and staff? How do we ensure that we honor the individual experiences of everyone while also understanding the systemic issues that influence those experiences? I don’t have all of the answers, but I believe it starts with having these conversations. It starts with asking critical questions about our services and programs. It starts with staff and faculty analyzing their own identities and internalized biases. It continues with cross-functional teams that assist in training colleagues in cultural competence. This is important work that is relevant to everyone on our campuses.

How else do you think we can build inclusive communities on our campuses?

Unproductive Resistance

If we are so stuck to what we believe to be true we can never learn anything. Are you engaging with the material negatively or positively?

When I’m facilitating a training, I frequently provide examples of whatever it is that I’m talking about. So if I’m talking about microaggressions based on race, I may provide some examples that I’ve overheard or witnessed (Where are you really from?) Another example that I’ve used to talk about privilege is the relative privilege that faculty have over staff at an institution of higher education. I think examples of concepts (in this case, a specific microaggression) highlights the reality of the concepts that I’m training on. It allows people to “see” a real life example and use that to fully understand the concept.

That’s the purpose anyway.

Most of the time it goes to plan with some quick conversation on the validity of the example. Sometimes the dialogue goes completely off the rails because people apply their critical lens to the example instead of using the example to critically consider how their experiences or thinking may be limited and then to learn using the example. Those are the times that I want to discuss for a brief moment.

If we are so stuck to what we believe to be true we can never learn anything. That means that hearing an example of a microaggression or privilege and then trying to find ways to dismantle the example is avoiding learning. What it does is misdirect the conversation to finding ways in which the example is somehow flawed. What this means is that we’re applying the same knowledge or lens (which could be inherently flawed or informed through privilege) that we’ve always had to the example instead of understanding how the example can change our perspectives and knowledge.

I’ve seen this play out in conversations where a person telling a story about how they’ve been the target of a microaggression is told that must not be what the other person meant. Which essentially is defending the person who said something ignorant. And while it isn’t necessarily the microaggressors’ fault that they said a microaggression (because privilege usually prevents those with it from understanding what they’ve said is harmful), it is harmful to defend the ignorance of a statement once it’s been defined as inherently ignorant.

Or sometimes it’s finding ways that one small piece of the conversation may not fit entirely within the conversation. I’ve heard one conversation about faculty relative privilege over staff derailed by bringing up the fact that some staff members’ salaries are higher than some faculty salaries. While this is true for a few cases, overall staff are at a disadvantage and using a small example erases the other issues in the different treatments that staff and faculty receive.

All of this is to say that when we’re in a space designed for us to learn, we need to critically reflect on how we’re engaging with the material. Are we asking questions that poke holes in examples? Or are we using the examples and the dialogue to poke holes in our thinking? Those are important self-reflective questions to consider within the context of social justice education trainings that if we do not answer for ourselves we can end up learning nothing and preventing the learning of others.

Complicating the narrative with #PrivilegeStories

We need the #PrivilegeStories because it rounds out the whole picture for us to fully comprehend the systems we live and breathe in. Without #PrivilegeStories we’re just fish who don’t understand that we’re in water.

We often hear stories about oppression and social injustice through the lens and experiences of the oppressed. Which is necessary. We need to hear the stories about the negative influence to fully understand the impact that oppression has on marginalized folks. We need to hear about the ways in which the prison industrial complex impacts people of color. We need to know about housing discrimination. We need to know about exclusionary policies against folks who practice Islam. We need to know about the barriers to success that undocumented people navigate. We need to know about income inequality (and understand the intersectional complications that occur when sex, gender, and race enter the conversation). We need to know about all of the byproducts of oppressive systems because the stories create critical consciousness of marginalization.

The stories of oppression are imperative AND it’s important for stories to be out there about the advantages that privileged folks receive. One of the insidious realities of privilege is that it’s invisible to those who have it. Because of this invisibility it’s hard to understand it, but when we tell stories about the ways that our privileged identities have advantaged us in our lives then both sides of oppressive systems become transparent. We start to see the oppression and the privilege through these stories.

Another complication that comes with privilege is the ways in which it’s easy to dismiss the stories of those who we see as different than us. I’ve been involved with many conversations about socially constructed difference in which people of color are ignored by white people because white people have been trained not to take people of color seriously. White privilege allows us to ignore the contributions of people of color and dismiss their stories of racism as “overly sensitive nonsense.” White privilege allows us to think that some laws getting passed in the 60s eradicated racism so stories of racism now must be outliers rather than the norm. White privilege allows us to accuse people of color of “playing the race card” anytime race is brought into the conversation because we’re supposed to be colorblind in a perverse co-opting of Dr. King’s vision.

So when stories get told about how white people, men, heterosexuals, upper middle class folks, cisgender people, Christians, able-bodied folks receive unearned, unasked for advantages we can push people with privilege to recognize more about how their experiences have been shaped very differently by the same systems that inflict oppression upon marginalized folks. When we can become aware of the ways that our society privileges some while oppressing others we can start to see the problems better. I think most people with privilege operate with the thought that some people are disadvantaged but don’t see the privileged side of it. When we can highlight that privileged side of inequity then consciousness can become easier for those who have privileges.

It’s important for those of us with privileged identities to share the ways in which we’ve been privileged. We have to speak truth to the invisible systems that have given us a leg up in this world. We have to recognize the injustice in that and do work in our communities to challenge our peers with privilege to wake up to that injustice and fight against it. We have to do that through telling our stories of privilege. #crimingwhilewhite is an example of these stories, but we need to go further. We need #PrivilegeStories shared consistently alongside the stories of marginalization and stories of systemic issues and institutions. We need the #PrivilegeStories because it rounds out the whole picture for us to fully comprehend the systems we live and breathe in. Without #PrivilegeStories we’re just fish who don’t understand that we live in water.

What are some of your #PrivilegeStories? Share in the comments and on social media.

A False Sense of Individualism

I accept oppression and privilege stemming from white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy societal pressures which means that there are invisible, unearned advantages that are bestowed upon people. These privileges are a silent form of collectivism. I have seen this to be one of the reasons people have a difficult time accepting that privilege exists. I have spoken with a few people over the last couple of years that seem to seize up when we start talking about privilege. My interpretation is that the concept of privilege is contrary to what we’ve always believed about our accomplishments. We need to believe that everything that we have accomplished has been from our own efforts and not helped by anything else. That’s what those of privilege have been told and that’s what it feels like when anyone accomplishes something.

After all, that’s part of the fabled American dream. The story goes that somebody starts from very little pulls themselves up into relevance and money. We don’t allow space in that narrative to hear about how that person was helped get to where they are. We don’t leave space for understanding how they are a part of something larger and while their individual efforts got them somewhere, it’s not everything. We don’t leave space in the story to explore how hard work isn’t everything and that there are millions of narratives of people who worked just as hard and did not see a change in their “status.”

Privilege bestows upon those who have it an unearned, unasked for, and invisible advantage of social capital. Social capital means connections. It means you have people who can do favors for you. And privilege watches out for its own. White people inadvertently believe other white people. Men believe other men. Those who are wealthy believe other wealthy people. (This is more complex than what I’m including here. Conferred dominance is a huge part of privilege and that goes beyond people with privilege believing other people of privilege.) And this also means the inverse is true. Generally, people with privilege aren’t going to hear what someone from a minoritized identity has to say or instead of listening intently they are thinking about how the story can’t be fully true.

The reality that this leads to is an invisible network of people who provide each other with some help that seems minimal but pushes some people to success. Which means that not all of our accomplishments are our own. We have to be able to understand that and move forward in order to continue to work toward social justice in our world. I recognize that accepting this is difficult (I’ve had my own journey with it). This is why I work with social justice education the way that I do. I want to be able to meet my students in their privilege and help them understand how some seemly innocent advantages can be harmful to everyone on a interpersonal level and systemic level.

Mindfulness and Social Justice

I was recently reading Savor and the authors, Thich Nhat Hahn and Lillian Cheung, use the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to relate to obesity and overeating and this led me to start thinking about how the Four Noble Truths apply to Social Justice Education. But first, a foundation…

The First Noble Truth is that all of us have suffering in our lives. None of us can escape from it. The Second Noble Truth is that we can identify the causes of our suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that we can put an end to our suffering and that healing is possible. Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth is that there are paths to free us from suffering. (Cheung & Hanh, 2010)

I believe these truths to be entirely accurate. Suffering can come in all shapes and sizes and does not have to relate to oppression, but if we use the Buddhist concept of suffering and apply it to oppression I think we learn can about how to put things into perspective. Privilege and oppression is a reality and we can’t escape it. Everyone is targeted by these systems. Certain people are provided with privilege. Others are provided with disadvantages or oppressed. If we accept that this is true then we can move along to begin to address it.

Once oppression and privilege are accepted as facts then we can begin to recognize the causes. In a US context, we live in a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy. All of these concepts interact and produce additional issues. For instance, some by-products of patriarchy are heterosexism (which then produces homophobia) and sexism (which then produces gender roles, misogyny, and male privilege). These causes are deeply embedded in our culture. It is difficult to conceptualize but we need to acknowledge that we can heal through critical consciousness and action. I think a lot of self work has to be done to recognize healing and it’s never done. I won’t ever be done trying to heal, but I can find ways to increase my healing by engaging with others and opening their eyes. I think this promotes self-healing and a way to heal for others.

These few thoughts came to me while reading I was Savor, but I know there are more ways to connect mindfulness and social justice work. There are more examples to highlight. We can look at divesting privilege through this lens. We can analyze internalized oppression through this lens. We can recognize interpersonal oppression as well as the more insidious systemic forms that produce the intra and interpersonal.

This post does not include the critical concepts such as being present in the moment and recognizing our emotions in a dialogue, the space we take up in conversation, or how we may be triggered by something we’ve just read or heard or experienced. These will probably be future topics in a series of posts on mindfulness and social justice education. I also recognize that there likely is work out there that has already been done combining these topics, but this will be about my own personal journey in understanding and recognizing how mindfulness and social justice overlaps.

Hanh, Thich Nhat; Cheung, Lilian (2010-02-20). Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (Kindle Locations 257-259). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Dear Florida

Dear Florida,

It’s one of your natives sons. There are so many beautiful things about my former home state. We’ve got natural wonders both inland and beachside. There are many people that come together to make the state a welcoming place for so many visitors. There is culture. There are excellent institutions of higher learning. There is something magical about the wind that comes off the Gulf of Mexico on a hot summer night. It’s been a long time and you should know that I miss you on some days. Today is not one of those days.

This letter started on positive notes and that was very hard for me to do because today was a reminder of the sickening lapse of justice that is ever-present in the Florida judicial system. Jordan Davis was shot and killed by a man who intended for him to die. I’m not here to debate whether Michael Dunn should have been charged with 2nd degree murder or 1st degree murder because the facts are that he killed Jordan Davis in broad daylight with witnesses. He fired his weapon into a car with four young men inside of it. He made that decision because he didn’t like their “thug music.” He has been found guilty for attempted murder of Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson, and Tommie Stornes. Dunn wrote letters while in jail that display the lack of value he places on non-white human life. While Dunn will be going to prison for a long sentence he won’t be going for murder and that’s what should happen when you take someone’s life intentionally.

Today’s miscarriage of justice reminds me of a couple of other recent stories where the law of the land does not seem to apply the same way to every person. Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling of her home during a fight with her abusive husband who she had a restraining order against. Marissa was not allowed to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in her defense because the judge said that she had other options. The case also slightly reminds me of the case against George Zimmerman in which he was able to walk away free from any repercussions for taking the life of Trayvon Martin.

The clear message that I’m hearing is that we do not value the lives of all Floridians. We do not use the law appropriately to hold all Floridians accountable to the lives they have taken. We do not protect survivors of domestic violence; we use existing laws against them. Stand your ground is not equally applied. Murder convictions are not equally applied.

I’m a Floridian and I’m angry about this. I don’t have a vote in the state any more but I still care. I can’t propose constitutional amendments through voter initiative but I can promote them. The state government doesn’t have to listen to me or take me seriously since I’m not a constituent but I will speak out. I’ll speak because the judicial system is clearly broken and I know Florida can be a better home than that. Florida needs to be the same home to all Floridians that it was to me.

I will speak out until the opportunities offered to me are offered to everyone, everywhere. I will speak out until the way that until we don’t have to fear for the lives of young people when they want a snack or need to buy gas. I can wear a hoodie without being considered suspicious. I know that I can go get a snack without being afraid for my life. I know that I can gas up my car with whatever music I want without fearing for my life. If justice is love in public; I’ve always been loved. I’ve always been welcomed. I have always had my privilege to protect me and lean back on. I will speak until things change because this is ridiculous.

Sincerely from one of your privileged sons,


My moment of hesitation

As a heterosexual, able-bodied, white cis-gendered male, I have a lot of unearned privileges in society that were taught to me through everything I interacted with. Whether it was media, school, etc. One of the only areas in which I don’t carry privilege is in my spiritual identity. I identify as an atheist. (An identity that I’m still exploring and potentially adjusting)

The only time ever that I felt hesitation in declaring my identity was during an exercise at a training retreat that I was taking part in. We all stood in a circle and stepped into the middle of the circle if we identified as {insert your social identity here}. In attendance at the retreat was every one of my new colleagues and all of our supervisors. I had yet to have a full conversation with everyone and suddenly became nervous when asked to step into the circle if you identify as atheist.

Now, I had no reason to be nervous. I was in a room of open-minded people who appreciate diversity and multiple perspectives. And yet, I still feared for the slightest moment that I would be judged for my identity. That is based on the inherent Christian privilege of the United States that implies that anything not Christian is wrong.

Due to my other social identities, I hadn’t felt that sense of not-belonging before and it wasn’t until much later when I was reflecting on my identities that I realized what that moment meant. And if I can feel momentary hesitation and fear about identifying as an atheist what does that mean for someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, genderqueer? What does it mean for someone whose identity is visible? What about someone who is African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Asian American/Pacific Islander? This line of questioning shook me to my core. It opened my eyes a little more to the socialized oppression and privilege prevalent in our society in ways that I previously had not experienced due to my visible privileged identities. It led me to want to become an activist and advocate. It shifted my perspective and professional identity. It made me strive to learn more about myself and our society. It made me engage in social justice advocacy and education.

For these reasons I am grateful for my moment of fear.