I joined the field of student affairs as a full-time professional a few months ago after completing my master’s program. Like many other practitioners, my program focused heavily on understanding the various ways each educator can contribute to our students’ holistic development. Like many of my peers, I entered this field excited to journey with students as they came to understand the various complex identities, both privileged and oppressed, that formed their “true self.” As individuals grow to know their identities more intimately, they are able to construct relationships that not only affirm their truth, but challenge them to continue growing beyond their time in college. As educators, we hope to empower our students to use their voices not only to promote their individual values but to call for the betterment of their many communities.
I identify first as a white antiracist and next as a queer cisgender woman. These salient identities, my educational background in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, my prior experience in teaching roles, and my noticable extraversion have led me to consistently be invited to facilitate “diversity” and “inclusion” workshops with many student groups on every campus I’ve worked. My own musings surrounding why I am asked to facilitate these workshops over other individuals of color constitute a separation reflection altogether, but this reality is worth noting for the thoughts I hope to share throughout this post.
One consistent theme found in various teacher or facilitator trainings is to maintain a goal of not seeking to change the “opinions” of your audience. One supposed benefit of living and learning in the United States is the ability to think and share one’s opinion freely. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we as student affairs educators are taught to support our students along their individual journeys towards truth and authenticity. Recently, I’ve found myself wanting to go rogue and abandon parts of these ideas. One thought that I’ve wrestled before I entered the field as a full-time professional and even moreso today is whether or not I am I allowed to tell a student that their opinion is not only wrong, but a(n) (in)direct statement of hate promoting systems of violence throughout our world.
When I facilitate conversations for groups of students with the learning outcome of “promoting diversity and inclusion,” I tend to have white students challenge the existence of white privilege, which is not shocking. I wholly believe that my whiteness allows white students to feel more empowered to share these deeply problematic “opinions” because they assume I will simply respect their individual “opinion.” Typically, educator trainings tell you you should allow conversations to grow organically while ensuring you achieve your main objectives for the session. However, when these moments occur, I typically choose not to engage the student(s) in a group setting and rather find a subtle way to ask them to speak with me after the session.
My hesitancy to challenge the widely shared “opinion” that white privilege does not exist comes from various facts and personal values. First, and most important, I do not believe in taking up time and space in a group setting to allow a system as violent as white privilege to be defended since our students of color are forced to face these conversations in almost every other space. Additionally, Sherry Watt’s (2007) work on Privilege Identity Exploration introduced practitioners to the eight Defense Modes individuals with salient privileged identities showcase when they are asked to acknowledge their privilege. Watt’s work has informed my professional practice significantly, particularly with students who choose to defend their white privilege. I do not believe a productive conversation could take place in a group setting since most white students are apt to respond from a defense mode that would prohibit actual learning from taking place. And, lastly, I choose not to engage with this “opinion” because I do not believe this is an opinion. I see the defense of white privilege, even from our college students, as an act of violence.
Many times, when I engage these students in conversation at the close of my facilitation, I am met with common thoughts like “why can’t we just agree to disagree?” or “why can’t you respect my opinion?” Many conversations I’ve gone on to have with individual students have seemed relatively productive, and I believe the student gained a different perspective. However, I’ve left some of those conversations deeply troubled by how aggressively students will defend their “opinions.” My social justice education as an undergraduate student leader was situated in the Social Change Model of Leadership – particularly the notion of understanding that there can and should be Controversy with Civility. We should act in a manner that challenges the harmful status quo while ensuring we protect the dignity of those with opposing views. This particular component of the model resonated with me deeply when I was 18 years old and still does to this day. However, while I still believe in and strive to treat each individual I encounter with respect and dignity, I cannot and will not affirm one’s “opinion” if their “opinion” is merely defending violent systems of oppression.
I share these thoughts with you to invite you all to join me in my (re)commitment to engage our students in more meaningful conversations surrounding “opinions.” Yes, we want to encourage our students to grow closer towards their own authentic selves. We want our students to feel empowered to share their thoughts, particularly those that align with their individuals values. However, if we recognize problematic and violent thoughts surrounding their “opinions” and we simply “agree to disagree” or choose to not engage, we are not living up to our own professional standards surrounding social justice. By not challenging our students’ “opinions” we are enacting the same forms violence many of us seek to combat each day.
One thing I value about CSJE is our commitment to collective learning. I want to continue this conversation especially with others who have found effective ways to engage in more meaningful conversations surrounding “opinions.” Please feel free to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabby Porcaro serves as the Student Affairs Case Manager at UNC Asheville. She earned an M.A.Ed. in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Virginia Tech and a B.A. in Interpersonal Conflict Analysis and Resolution with a minor in Sociology from George Mason University. Gabby is the current Scholarship intern for the Commission of Social Justice Educators and hopes to continue promoting and producing scholarship that interrupts harmful policies and traditions throughout the institution of higher education.