Talking about race

Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui meets with students. (Photo: PCC)

Last December, while students at Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon were on their winter break, vandals defaced the school’s Cascade campus with white supremacist, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi propaganda.

Security cameras showed seven people posting racist stickers and flyers throughout the campus. The materials included swastikas and recruiting posters for the hate group Patriot Front, whose website incites white Americans to fight for “the survival and prosperity of their homeland against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

“Needless to say, this is something that runs completely counter to our institutional mission and values, as well as our collective sense of decency as human beings,” Karin Edwards, president of PCC’s Cascade campus, said in a letter to the campus community. “Let me be perfectly clear—there is no place, and no tolerance, for this sort of thing.”

This excerpt comes from the current issue of Community College Journal, the flagship publication of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The incident is one example of an alarming trend. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 329 similar occurrences on 241 different college campuses from March 2016 to October 2017. These episodes, and other racially motivated threats, conflict with the need for community colleges to create a safe and inclusive environment where all students feel welcome and can reach their full potential.

A rise in racial tensions nationwide has heightened the need for community college leaders to have candid conversations about race on their campuses. “Dialogue is the only path to creating community,” says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High.

But talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and other issues of identity is difficult, because it can make people feel deeply uncomfortable.

“The human reflex is a survival reflex,” Grenny notes. “When people come at us with strong opposing opinions, we have a physiological response. We feel a primal sense of danger that equips us exactly the wrong way to engage in civil dialogue.” While there are no easy solutions, community college leaders can learn from colleagues at institutions that have made a strong commitment to equity and diversity and have experience in fostering conversations about race in their communities.

Opportunities for dialogue

At Oakton Community College in Illinois, “conversations about equity, access and diversity are part of the fabric of our college,” President Joianne Smith says.

Oakton has created a separate office for access, equity, and diversity, and it has assembled an anti-racism team that seeks to eliminate racial bias across the college. It also holds a “Critical Conversations” series that encourages candid dialogue about these issues.

“We had Christian Picciolini, author of Life After Hate and a former neo-Nazi, come speak,” says Juletta Patrick, dean of access, equity, and diversity. “We have had conversations on LGBTQ awareness, as well as micro-aggressions and how people can avoid participating in them.”

Having people share their personal stories can be very powerful. “It puts a human face on some of the things people deal with on a daily basis,” Patrick says.

To cultivate understanding through these kinds of discussions, colleges must invite everyone to the table — including those who disagree very strongly — and ask them to listen to each other while refraining from judgment. “A campus needs to be a place where people can express themselves freely, even if others despise what they have to say,” Grenny says.

Oakton Community College President Joianne Smith encourages critical conversations about diversity. (Photo: OCC)

Fostering dialogue is challenging when people have points of view that others find morally repulsive. But even people who don’t respect each other’s opinions can still learn from one another.

“A lot of people misunderstand how you create community,” Grenny observes. “They think that mutual respect is a precondition for listening and disclosure, and it’s not. If you can’t come from a place of respect, you can still come from humility and curiosity. What I mean by humility is suspending judgment by asking: Is it possible that my judgments are imperfect? Is it possible that I don’t fully understand that other person’s world? And if so, can I be humble enough to listen?”

Patrick, who is African-American, describes a relationship she developed with a student named Mike while she was working at another college. “Mike came into my office, and when I asked how I could help him, he said, ‘I hate n***ers.’ I said, ‘OK, why do you hate n***ers?’ and he said, ‘Because they’re this and they’re that.’ He just went on and on.”

Patrick asked him to engage in an ongoing dialogue with her that would take place over several weeks, so that she could understand who he was and where he was coming from. She also asked if he would be open to listening to what she had to say about his feelings, and he said yes.

“Mike showed me the Confederate flag,” she recalls. “He went to this website and showed me a lot of hateful things. But they were dear to him. And so I actively and caringly listened to his perspective. After a few weeks of learning about one another, he finally told me, ‘When I was younger, there was an African-American male who came to my small town, and we beat him up.’ He was young at the time, and he grew up in a house full of racism. He ended up going to a juvenile detention center, and they put him on a floor with all African-Americans, where he was beaten every day himself—and that was where his feelings stemmed from.”

Despite their differences, the two came to appreciate — if not agree with — each other’s perspective. “I was able to help get him to the next level in his work life,” Patrick says. “But that’s what it took, that critical conversation and an open and caring front.”

Read the full article.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.