At ACPA 2008 in Atlanta, I presented a session entitled “Social Justice and the Conduct Process.” This session explored how issues of diversity and social justice emerge in student conduct processes throughout higher education. We discussed how identity, whether it be ability status, religion, gender, race, sexual orientation or class (or a great many other identities), emerge as factors in any conduct case. Our conduct processes exist within systems that privilege certain groups while disenfranchising others. Even though higher education devotes significant resources to diversity education, such efforts are not an inoculation against the chronic and pervasive “isms” that are embedded in the fabric of society.
While the session, overall, went well, I was surprised by the defensive reaction it elicited from several participants. Conceptualizing how any process that we may run could be perpetuating racism, for example, was a tough pill for many to swallow.
Yes, this is a difficult truth to own. After all, how can higher education in general or Student Affairs in specific purport to be special or exempt from entities like privilege and oppression? What makes us so special?
We can see elsewhere that diversity and social justice issues remain as significant issues. Recently I finished reading the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” This work details, in a superb fashion, the persistent issues that create and perpetuate racism in the U.S. criminal justice system. Whether it is drug violations, mandatory sentencing, or life after parole, the author, Michelle Alexander, does an astounding job at drawing out racism in the structure of the criminal justice system. Yet, I think there are many that would agree that structural discrimination exists in the criminal justice system but may still struggle with owning it in our conduct processes. So, let’s look at a field a bit closer to our own.
In my book, Color by Number: Understanding Racism through Facts and Stats on Children, I delve into many different topics, outlining the quantitative data to exemplify racism in societal systems (healthcare, environmental justice, juvenile justice, education). One chapter is entitled “Back of the School Bus: K – 12 Education” and it details all the subjects one would typically see in covering racism in K-12 education (i.e., funding discrepancies, teacher mobility, the achievement gap). But, one topic often left uncovered is discipline, and there is a wealth of data to show how children of color experience harsher sanctions in school than White children. One of the most notable differences is in corporal punishment. Yes…in 20 states across the U.S., it is still legal for teachers and administrators to hit children in the name of educating them. As outlined by the U.S. Department of Education, Black children disproportionally receive corporal punishment (they account for 17.13% of school children yet receive 35.67% of the corporal punishment doled out). This disproportionate reality is also seen in discipline referrals, suspension and expulsions.
As an aside, there are countries all over the world that outlaw corporal punishment in schools. The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children is an organization steadfastly advocating this reality. Some may find it interesting to know, given recent history, what countries outlaw corporal punishment in schools; they include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Venezuela. But I digress…
Given the overwhelming evidence of how chronic and pervasive systemic issues of justice are throughout the criminal justice system and K-12 education, we cannot assume immunity in Student Affairs. And, sadly, we do not need to look very far to see overt examples of where we have fallen short. There is currently a federal investigation involving the University of Montana and how cases involving sexual assault have been handled by the institution. While the findings have not yet been released, the allegations are sobering, to say the least (“failing to adequately investigate and prosecute alleged sexual assaults against women in Missoula” Department of Justice, 2012). In recent history, such issues have emerged for other institutions.
Responding to sexual assault, in both preventative and reactive capacities, is one of many areas we, as an entire field, can do better. But, our first step has to be the difficult, internal work where we own that while we may be trying as hard as we can to advocate for justice, we too are part of the problem. We are all raised in systems overloaded with messages that support the dominant hierarchy; we are a part of those systems. This is, by no means, an easy reality to own, but it is the very first step towards substantive change.
How we all navigate owning our part in the work for social justice is highly individualistic. For me, there continue to be two ways that help. First, there is community. I consider myself to be fortunate to have several people in my life that will tell me the truth. They will challenge me, offer to help, and continue to show me love even after my mistakes. And second, there is counseling. In my experience, counseling is crucial because it is 50 minutes a week where I am forced into introspection. Without this time it is far too easy to forgo this essential self work to remain grounded. Plus, sometimes it takes a trusted professional, someone not in your community, to challenge you to see life in new ways. I have stopped and started a counseling relationship often in the past ten years and am exceedingly grateful for the clarity it has helped develop in my life.
We do an incredible amount of planning for professional development in Student Affairs. I think it is important, in all of that planning, that we also set aside time for personal development. Now, thinking about who is likely to be reading this piece on the CSJE blog, I know I am likely preaching to the choir. But, a mentor of mine once told me that preaching to the choir, at times, is fine. Even the best choir in the world needs a tune-up every so often!
Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.