I sit at a table on the second day of Orientation with a big smile on my face, ready to welcome students and their guests to the University. I am equipped with my initial question, ‘did your high school have a Multicultural Center or Women’s Center?’ I’ve practiced my elevator speech about programs, initiatives, and clubs. I am ready to capture the incoming student’s attention, even if I have it for just a short bit of time. I could talk about the great work the Centers do in my sleep. I am ready. My table is set up to proudly display our Cross Cultural Centers, two trifolds packed full of pictures of happy students attending our events, t-shirts from previous events, and a sign-up sheet asking for anyone who is interested to get involved. I am ready.
One of the first parents who stop near my table scans the table, reads the names of the offices, and as he waves his hand at the table, says “neither apply.” I am not ready. I am taken aback for a second. I am confident that, in that moment, I lacked the ability to put on my poker face. I quickly snap back to reality and smile and say everyone is welcome in the space. I engage briefly, he leaves with his mind unchanged, and I go on about my day. I tell a couple of my colleagues and we laugh it off. I say, after the fact, ‘congratulations, you have a white son.’ An unnecessary comment, I know.
Now that I have the time to dissect the brief interaction, I think, this is why we need centers for students who identify as marginalized. The need and value of the centers is a passing thought to some who holds privileged identities. Even in the smallest of actions, it is evident that some privileged people do not feel a responsibility nor want to engage in anti-oppressive work. Those centers do not apply to them so therefore they are not needed. Now, am I probably reading in to a small interaction that meant no harm, probably. But, maybe I am not making it in to more than it is, maybe it is a harmful interaction. I was told that the work I do, where I pour my heart in to everyday, did not matter to him. Diversity, multiculturalism, and equity, did not apply to him.
If the idea that a center working on anti-oppression does not apply to certain people, they will not be working towards social justice. So the question I have to ask as the Director of the centers is how do I invite people in who are marginalized and need that space and, in addition to that, work with those who do not think the center is even warranted on their campus? We know that anyone can be involved in social justice work because we are situated to hold multiple identities, some privileged, and some marginalized. So why are some people turned off by the work of the centers, just by the names. I once had a student tell me I should rename the Women’s Center because men do not want to go in there. I thought, interesting point, and one that Women’s Centers have been faced with since their creation. My question back to him was, why do men not engage in good work because it seemed like it was for women? The male student did not have a response, but started volunteering a couple months later. I wonder if that was that father’s understanding. He believed his son would not fit in or benefit from time spent in the Multicultural Center or Women’s Center. An assumption here, but I would bet they haven’t had family dinners where sexual assault, microaggressions, or homophobia is discussed as the potatoes are passed.
So the next question I have to ask, is why not? Why is social justice and anti-oppression not an everyday conversation? It is in the Centers, but sometimes I’m preaching to the choir. How can the professional staff and students go out to the residence halls, classrooms, and streets to normalize this conversation? It’s something we urgently need to do. Most students I talk with think the only way to create change is to stand on a corner and rally people together, shouting so loudly that politicians cannot ignore it, and that is how peace will come. I believe it is quite the opposite, sitting with someone, finding out what makes them nervous or vulnerable about the work, and then doing it together.
This is not groundbreaking news, but it is a good reminder as I write that intentional face-to-face conversations impact people on a greater level. It takes much more time and energy. I also have to manage my own emotions more when I sit down across from someone who does not agree with me, but so do they. People cannot hid in the crowd and avoid responsibility when it is only two people. If time allows, take on those difficult conversations, which means also not hiding behind hashtags on social media, prepared rhetoric, and ending the conversation when you think you have had too much. At the end of the day, you may even learn something about yourself.
Justine Johnson, M.A., has been the Director of the Cross Cultural Centers at The University of Scranton since 2015. Previously, she served as the Director of the Jane Kopas Women’s Center since 2012. She loves working in social justice with students on gender equity topics. Over the last couple of years, she has loved working on anti-oppression, diversity, and advocacy with the community. Justine received her Master’s in Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato writing her thesis on masculinity and food.