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 Tuesday, November 10, 2009 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Diversity Summit sessions explore privilege and oppression
by Allison Sylvest

The first step in becoming an effective ally is to know one’s self; however, confronting personal feelings and experiences surrounding discrimination and prejudice isn’t easy. In the Nov. 3 Diversity Summit sessions on “How to Become an Ally,” participants opened up to discuss their personal experiences and perceptions, and came away with a better idea about how discrimination affects not only the victims, but also witnesses and society as a whole.

“Concepts surrounding privilege and oppression affect our goal of inclusive excellence on this campus,” said Alphonse Keasley, assistant vice chancellor for campus climate, who headed the sessions. “False assumptions negatively influence experiences on campus, not only for those being targeted, but in the climate we create for everyone.”

Confronting our own privileges and prejudices may be difficult and even painful, but it is an important step in the process of putting ourselves in someone else’s position and identifying with the feelings and reactions that surround discrimination. To take responsibility for learning about and understanding discrimination in its many forms is part of the commitment we make when becoming an ally. It’s not enough to say we’re not biased or that we support other cultures, identities, races, etc. – the willingness to face uncomfortable situations, to make mistakes and to actively stand up for and support others, is what being an ally is about.

The participants in the Diversity Summit sessions came to realize how important training is in order to become an effective ally. Gaining confidence in our own commitment and the willingness to engage in a lifelong process of understanding ourselves and others not only makes us better allies, it is the difference between actively working to improve our society rather than taking a passive role in which our voices aren’t heard.

In follow up sessions, “Sometimes I feel Like the Enemy,” conversations on issues of race, gender and the GLBT community allowed participants to further talk about their perceptions and experiences. Fears surrounding certain behaviors, conditioned responses to situations, and assumptions about cultural values and norms were openly discussed and examined.

Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement Sallye McKee joined the Tuesday afternoon session to share stories of her personal and professional experiences. “I was raised to look at unfamiliar people and situations as ‘interesting’ instead of ‘different,’” she said. “Just thinking about things in our own minds as ‘different’ or ‘strange’ can set up an unconstructive viewpoint. ‘Interesting’ is a another way to approach life, and I’m grateful to have been taught to see the world in that way.”

There are several groups on campus that routinely offer ways to learn about becoming an ally and to confront discrimination. The Interactive Theatre Project assists the GLBT Resource Center in conducting frequent safer zone trainings, and also regularly presents acted scenarios to examine many topics. It’s an effective way to get the audience thinking and talking about a number of issues, including diversity, gender and race.

Community Health is a public health peer education program offered through Wardenburg Health Center that focuses on supporting and improving student wellbeing through workshops, classes and one-on-one conversations. Perspectives on privilege, oppression, health disparities, and social justice are among the topics about which trained student staff and volunteers educate their peers.

In addition, there are many groups and organizations on campus that lend support and offer opportunities to become allies. A listing is available on the UMC website.

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