Tag Archives: #reflection

A Recovering Racist

Two weeks ago, I stood on the NASPA stage and called myself a racist. It was in the context of an SA Speaks session, which is similar to a TED Talk. Professionals are given 10-15 minutes to give a talk about a topic near and dear to them, and for me, growing up in a racist environment, being racist as a child and adolescent, but being transformed by my college experience was the story I needed to tell.

In an age of police brutality, structural and systemic oppression, and all the way to professional Facebook groups, racism is everywhere. In light of all of these continuing dynamics and especially in light of the magnificent #BlackSAPBlackout in the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook page at the end of last week, I wanted to share the script of my talk before the video becomes available online. In complete transparency, I know I diverted from the script a few times and don’t remember a ton of it (thanks adrenaline!) so the finished product will be slightly different, but here it is, as it was meant to be given.

I would also like to thank Heather Browning and Bulaong Ramiz for being my incredible editors and feedback providers. Their incredible work made my work so much better, so please think of them the next time you need a critical eye.

Hello everyone! My name is Marci Walton and I am not here to talk about assessment or retention or budgets. I’m not going to share my research or talk about a program I’ve implemented on campus. Instead, I want to talk to you  about race. I want to talk to you about someone who grew up in a racist environment, internalized those messages, held hate in my heart, but was transformed by my collegiate experience, and stand before you as an aspiring racial ally and accomplice.

I want to talk about race because the time for passive head-nodding of white student affairs professionals is and has been over. I titled this session “A Recovering Racist” because I view racism as a socially constructed sickness. One that is insidious, can lay dormant for years and mutate into different manifestations and college campuses are the perfect Petri dish. The racist part of me will always be there so I must be vigilant and battle flare-ups from time to time. I also want to acknowledge the inherent privilege associated with being listened to during this session. I was quite literally given a stage and a microphone when so many of my students and colleagues of color are not given the same opportunity, so I have to use this moment to say something, to stir something inside of you, to help inspire less hand-wringing and more action. So here’s my story.

To know me is to know my hometown. I grew up in the village of Sycamore, Ohio. Census data from 2000 shows a population of 914, 99.67% identified as white. This meant my teachers were white, my friends were white, my church congregation was white, my pharmacist, doctor, dentist, hairdresser, and banker were all, you guessed it, white. This meant the only messages I got about race were from people who were white, plus movies, magazines, and TV. This means that when my Dad got a deep tan one summer and I asked him if he was now Black. This environment meant hearing the N word used as just another way to describe people in my community or to refer to the lower income part of town. This environment meant confederate flags were a dime a dozen and my high school mascot was and still remains a Mohawk Warrior. It meant I became a stereotypical white first-year student who freaked out when I was matched with a black roommate.

Move-in day was stressful. I was scared to death to meet Kia, my college roommate and it wasn’t just typical jitters. This was going to be the first time I EVER had a conversation with a person of color and now I was living with a phenomenal Black woman. I remember overhearing Kia’s younger sister whisper to her, “Kia, you have to live with a white girl? Good luck with that!” I immediately bristled. I thought to myself, “I’m not a white girl. I’m just me.” I had never been asked to think about my race before, but I was about to get an education I did nothing to deserve.

For some reason, Kia gave me grace that I did not deserve. She deserved to have a college roommate who was easy to live with and not someone who asked her if she was in a gang when she wrapped her hair and threw a scarf around it our first night as roommate. I was shocked when she said her high school didn’t have metal detectors. I snubbed my nose when she turned on BET. I told her collared greens looked like weeds. I was racist. 100%. And for reasons I still don’t understand, Kia gave me a chance. She invited me to come along to weekly meetings of Concerned Black Students, our campus organization dedicated to Black students and racial equity. I so distinctly remember the uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach during the first meeting when I was the sole white face in the crowd. I whispered to Kia, “It’s so weird. I’m the only white person. Is it really okay for me to be here?” and she whispered back, “You’re fine. This is what it’s like in every single class I’m in. How does it feel?” This was a turning point. I decided to reserve judgement. To listen more than I spoke. And to learn everything possible to supplement a racial education that had just begun.

Kia invited me to hang out with her friends. There was a group of about 10 Black women who lived on our floor and they welcomed me with open arms and a healthy dose of skepticism. I continued to attend CBS meetings. I began taking classes in Africana Studies. I broadened what movies I watched and what music I listened to and what books I read. I walked out of classes to attend an annual CBS Walk-Out for racial awareness and equality on campus. As I was preparing for this presentation, I reached out to some of my college friends to compare my recollection with their experience. Erica recalled me asking lots of questions about Black girl’s hair and attending as many of her gospel choir concerts as I could. She said her favorite memory was seeing me in my CBS stole at graduation which showed her unity across skin color. Travette remembered my presence at CBS events and participating in and attending forums on race relations. She said my presence and participation were a testament of my effort to try and understand cultural differences  and learn that although we have differences that does not make us unrelatable. Kia, my roommate, had perhaps the most poignant reflections. She said she expected to have issues with me due to my small town roots. She remembered me be unsure about attending CBS and later apologizing for my nervousness around having a Black roommate. Kia remembered me listening to her when she expressed opinions around race and asking questions to better understand, but never invalidating her experience. She said I was supportive during times of racial turmoil on campus. “I really wish more people would approach racial relations in the way that you did, by holding back their opinions, listening to others, and being supportive when needed.  Overall, it was great having you as a roommate.  You taught me a lot of things too…that people can change their views if they are really open and want to understand the other point of view.”

It’s clear I was getting what college should be, a truly transformative experience.

But then I had a healthy dose of reality set in. I was on fire for my Africana Studies courses and wasn’t for the classes of my major. So over Christmas Eve dinner of my sophomore year, I boldly announced to my parents I was switching my major, wanted to go to the peace corp, and then become a professor of African History. It did not go over well. They told me I could change my major all I wanted, but they wouldn’t pay for my education. As hot, angry tears rolled down my cheeks, my father’s words rang in my ears. “Who cares what a white person has to say about race?”

So I did what any logical 19-year-old would do and that was continue to take classes and just not tell my parents. I kept my original major and supplemented it with Literature of the Caribbean, Slave Narratives, African-American history, and more to feed this desire. I read Martin AND Malcolm. I stayed active in CBS, attempted to get my white friends to come to meetings and events, called out my sorority when they tried to have a “ghetto” themed party, with varying degrees of success. Some white friends were receptive, many were defensive and I often impacted relationships. I used my role as a Resident Advisor to do programming around racial justice and invited sometimes resistant white residents to attend CBS events. I did original research on the racial discrimination my friends faced, wrote a senior thesis on the sociological implications of the Divine Nine, and marched on Washington with my friends when an affirmative action case was being heard by the Supreme Court. My parents still don’t know about that one!

I don’t share these example to do what so often well-meaning white people do and that is collect “ally” cookies, expect a pat on the head for being a decent human being, or to prove I’m one of the “good” white people, but instead to illustrate the possibilities of engaging white students in reflections on race through conversations across cultures, co-curricular engagement, and academic curriculum.

It is this critical reflection, acknowledgement of my responsibility to use my racial privilege to work towards critical change and the amazing educators/friends that led me to student affairs. It was this undergraduate foundation that brings me to this stage. It is being pushed and challenged and called out and called in by amazing professors in my graduate program like Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart and Dr. Ellen Broido. It is reckoning with my privileges and realizing I didn’t need to be an expert before I could think critically think about myself, my peers, or my students in new ways.

So what does this mean now? What does my story have to do with us in this room? Well, first I want to apologize. To my Asian, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and multiracial colleagues, I am deeply sorry. Your white colleagues, myself included, have not done enough. We have been silent. We have mistaken the feeling of being uncomfortable with being unsafe. We have huddled in corners and looked to you as experts and asked you to educate us. We have re-centered conversations with our tears and have crowned ourselves allies when we have done nothing to deserve the title. We’ve been all about social justice during job interviews and then operated like business as usual when black and brown bodies have been brutalized, not just in Ferguson or Baltimore, but on our very own campuses. We have lost opportunities to educate white students about their privileges. We have looked to diversity offices to do “the work” of inclusion and equity when this is everyone’s work because students of color are everyone’s students, even if we don’t act like it. We have been so worried about doing the wrong thing that we don’t do anything at all. And it is unacceptable.

So what can white professionals do? We can stop christening ourselves allies without taking action. I know I try to be an ally, but you need to talk to my friends, colleagues, and students to see if my actions match up with my aspirations. We can stop trying to learn on the backs of our colleagues. By constantly positioning professionals of color as the educator of able white professionals, we place undue burden on them when we have all the resources we need right at our fingertips. Want to know more? Do the work. Google brings up 146 million results for the “white ally.” Don’t ask your colleagues of color to labor for you for free. By doing so, you are further perpetuating problematic systems of inequity. For example, I had two amazing women of color, Heather Browning and Bulaong Ramiz read over this speech and provide suggestions and I paid them for their time. I didn’t expect them to want to help me, simply because I’m showing some commitment to progress.

White professional can stop using intersectionality as a reason to opt-out of conversations around race, because yes, I am a woman and middle-class and temporarily able-bodied and many other target and agent identities, but none of them make me any less white. We can interrupt racist assumptions. We can sit down and be quiet when people of color are gifting us with their truth and we can stand up and shout when their voices are not being heard. We can ask students of color how they are and actually listen and respond with compassion. We can realize our colleagues of color are weary, not just from doing their jobs, but also from living in a world which consistently tell them they don’t matter.

We can think about how racism is woven within the structures and institutions on our home campuses. I realize this can be especially overwhelming. I get it. But you take down structures brick by brick, so what’s your brick going to be? Maybe you will look critically at how students are given housing assignments so the students of color aren’t placed in segregated housing due to economic resources. Maybe you will suggest an author who isn’t white for your first year common read book. Maybe you will ask why there are so many people of color as cafeteria and custodial workers, but few in top leadership positions. Maybe you will ask how financial aid practices impact retention rates of students of color. Maybe you will take a critical look at getting beyond tolerance during your student leader training. Maybe you will commit to diversifying your social media networks so you aren’t constantly seeing narratives similar to your own. Maybe you won’t so quickly dismiss white students who don’t “get it,” around issues of race because I didn’t get it until I was asked to think and reflect and struggle with myself. Maybe you will instead think about how to provide an experience like I had in college which wove race into conversations across cultures, co-curricular engagement and the academic curriculum. Maybe you’ll ask why the racial composition of your college doesn’t match the glossy pictures of your brochures. Maybe you will not just buy tickets to a Beyonce concert, but engage your students in conversations of the #BlackGirlMagic found in Formation. Maybe you will partner with your campus police departments to address relationships with communities of color. Maybe you will vote. And help your students become informed voters. Maybe you’ll listen. Maybe you’ll read. Maybe you’ll think. Maybe you’ll do something. Anything. If you’ve been waiting for a sign, this is it. Let’s collectively answer my father’s question, “Who is going to listen to a white person talk about race?”

Let’s get to work. We have plenty to do. Thank you.

 

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One Year, One Word

After many years of hemming and hawing, I’ve finally decided to participate in the One Word Challenge. This movement asks participants to scrap a list of resolutions for the new year of all the things you want to do and instead focus on who you want to be. I really enjoy this concept as resolutions and I have never really gotten along. I found them to be limiting and guilt-inducing. So, when the indomidable Lisa Endersby put a call out for interest in the student affairs community to participate, I was all in.

In a show of true destiny, I decided to participate right before I jetted off to Las Vegas to celebrate New Years at a wedding for some of my dear friends. We celebrated their nuptials on the 17th floor balcony of the Platinum Hotel and then we watched fireworks shower the Las Vegas Strip to ring in 2015. The entire time, I kept pinching myself because I am not this cool. Seriously. I had an amazing time and took my first leap with my one word in mind by rocking a dress made completely out of sequins.

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Two dear friends and I rocking some NYE sequins!

Never in my life would I have ever chosen such an ostentatious garment, but if you can’t wear a dress made entirely of sequins on New Years Eve, in Las Vegas, at a wedding, when can you? This one little choice led me to my One Word for 2015…

moxie

In short, I love this word. I love the spirit behind it and how it incorporates confidence, joy, personality, grit, and actively seeking adventures. I love the charge that it asks of me. It’s not a word that can be shoved in a drawer and forgotten about all that easily. It’s a challenge and a call to action. And I’m ready for it. I’m ready to see where it takes me for 2015!!!

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Why I’m Going to Stop Apologizing for Tears

I’m a crier. I have been since senior year of high school when I realized I was experiencing the “last” of everything. The last lunchtime conversation. The last Yearbook class. The last prom planning meeting. (Sidenote: Is it any surprise that I ended up in student affairs?) My combination of deep sentimentality combined with empathy means I not only feel all of my own emotions, but also pick up and internalize the feeling of others in the room. Additionally, I like to say that no one should ever have to cry alone. This means as soon as I see one person tear up, I’m as good as gone. A dear friend likes to say that I have a glass heart. Easily chipped and broken, but simultaneously admirable and beautiful.

I’ve cried my way through graduation ceremonies, weddings, commercials, religious ceremonies, end of the year affirmations, a particularly powerful Broadway song, kind notes from students, sorority initiations, and more. Last week I found myself on the verge of tears during our department’s leadership class. I co-teach this class of newly hired student staff members and was on a panel of Resident Directors, Resident Ministers, and an undergraduate Assistant Resident Director talking about working with professionalism. One of the incoming student leaders asked us to describe our motivation for our work and how we know we are making a difference. First, what a great question! Second, I immediately felt the lump in my throat start to form and the butterflies in my stomach start to flutter. I knew tears were eminent so I deferred to others on the panel. I was fine until Gigi, the Assistant RD started talking about the support of her team and the growth she’s seen from them. She couldn’t get through the next sentence because she was so moved with emotions, and me being the sympathetic crier, immediately started to well up. There was a bout of nervous laughter from the crowd, which so often happens when truly authentic emotion is observed, and I immediately started to apologize to the group.

I tried to laugh it off, to defer the emotion of the question and to make light of the moment. I apologized profusely and saw the nervous looks from my students who just realized that their instructor was maybe also a person. My coworkers deftly moved the conversation along and we didn’t discuss the break for emotion any more. I sucked the tears back into my red-rimmed eyes and tried to forget it.

A few days later Sue Caulfield, Kristen Abell, and the Student Affairs Collective launched #SAcommits, a call for the field to continue the conversation about mental health in a constructive and not reactionary manner. I applaud their efforts on so many levels and soon realized that by apologizing for my emotional reaction in class, I was dismissing emotion too. I had, in an effort to save face, dismissed a great teaching moment for incoming student leaders. I had taught them that showing emotions is not okay and perhaps even worse, is shameful. I felt the pressure of maintaining professionalism, of creating distance between instructor and student, and the pressure of keeping it together as a woman in order to be taken seriously all funnel down into two words: I’m sorry.

Guess what? I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry these student leaders saw how impacted I have been by my work. I’m not sorry they got to see that I am more than someone who grades their papers. I’m not sorry they got to see that emotions are a part of people’s lives. I am deeply sorry that student leaders who plan to work in our residence halls, which is arguably some of the most emotionally charged work a student leader can do, didn’t see me take a moment, and address the fact that the question sparked something personal in me that I was still working through. I’m sorry they weren’t able to see me be kind with myself in the moment, that I waved away the tears like it was an annoying mosquito that kept buzzing around my face. I’m deeply sorry that Gigi, the Assistant RD who first started to well up, got verbally abandoned when I apologized for my own tears, and underhandedly got the message that her tears didn’t matter.

These student leaders are going to be privy to some of the most emotional situations a college student can face, from the break-up of a relationship, to not living up to academic potential, to struggling through the redefinition of their relationship with family members and countless others. I told my class that viewing the humanity of the person in front of you is tantamount to stepping on someone’s toe in a subway or knocking a glass off a coffee table. We’re more than that. Emotions do not require apologies. They require care and compassion and taking just a moment to be in that space.

So I’m done apologizing, dismissing, and making light of my tears. My tears make me a kind, empathetic person who values the connections found in the world. In the words of Queen Elsa, “conceal, don’t feel” isn’t going to cut it for me any more.

 

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Complaining vs. Commiserating

Let me set the scene: It’s Friday at 5pm, you’ve had a really rough week and a trusted colleague invites you for dinner or drinks and a little destress session from a long five days. You join them and a few other co-workers at the local bar or restaurant and the stories of the week start. Who had the worst student interaction, who had the worst duty call, who experienced the most ridiculous request from a parent, or perhaps the worst interaction with a supervisor.

We’ve all been there. We’ve commiserated and felt the sense of relief about having conversations with people who get it. Not with your parents who perhaps don’t really understand your job or a partner who empathizes and supports you, but doesn’t share your world, or friends who are still a little confused as to why you haven’t technically left college. There is something liberating about commiserating with people who simply understand.

I must admit that I am a member of this club. I have a group of six former colleagues who have since moved throughout the country, but we share a group text that has been going for the better part of two years. We’ve shared joys and sorrows, engagements, pregnancy news, the adoption of a wide variety of pets, and job search woes. What I love the most about this group of friends is the diversity of our conversations. Are there moments of pure steam-letting about colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, or University politics? Of course, but that is not the main connection to one another.

This leads me to question, when does commiserating in a healthy, reflective way border on complaining for complaining’s sake? I can’t help but think of all of the Twitter accounts that are based on the idea commiserating (or complaining), depending on your lens. Some of those accounts include SAProblemsBadSAPro, BadHallDirector, SAProSarcasm, BadSAPro, BitterSAPro, ResLifeSpouse, BitterHD, and the list goes on and on and on! Combined, these accounts have thousands of followers.

Are these accounts, and more specifically, conversations that in reality are complaining, moving our field forward? Are they doing us a service by pointing out the areas of frustration and tension or are they simply a way to play the “one up” game and think your woes are the worst?

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