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Dear DEI People: Your Black Colleagues Are Waiting

Courtney N. Wright asks, why aren't more administrators who say they support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives reaching out to their black colleagues now?

June 19, 2020
 
 

Over the past several weeks, black faculty members on various campuses have received several statements from campus administrators about the recent unjust murders of black men and women and the protests taking place around the United States. At minimum, these statements should have: 1) explicitly condemned the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, 2) acknowledged the institution’s failure to fulfill the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) values espoused in their mission statements, strategic plans and commitments to faculty of color, black faculty specifically, and 3) identified specific changes to the “business as usual” approach to the running of the institution and their relationship with black faculty.

Instead, many of the statements we received were politically correct “thoughts and prayers” indicating (in appropriate academicspeak, of course) that our administrators are: 1) troubled by what they saw on the news, 2) convinced that “our campus is better than this” and 3) committed to supporting black students, faculty and staff during this difficult time.

In dire need of such support, black faculty have waited to receive messages appropriate for this occasion from our nonblack colleagues, diversity-affiliated committee chairs and members with whom many of us work alongside on DEI service responsibilities.

And we‘ve waited …

And waited …

And are still waiting …

The deafening silence that has often followed calls from administrators to support your black colleagues cannot and should not be understated. After reading statements promising much-needed support, we continued to wait while knowing that if past behavior is any indication of future behavior, our wait is in vain. Yet for some the audacity of hope remained. “This time will be different. Surely, they must see us [see me] now … as fully human and a fellow colleague … this time.”

As the silence continues, we admit what we already knew: those institutional statements were never for us, but for them -- a piece of evidence that they aren’t as bad as, or complicit in, this racism problem. With each send of an email they placed their patriotic flag on the “right side” of this ugly debate. Beyond sending thoughts and prayers, campus leaders need to engage in genuine reflections on their past behavior and the responsibilities of their positions.

Make no mistake, this essay is not a plea to the humanity and empathy of our nonblack colleagues to “do better” or, as our first lady states, “Be best.” Instead, I want to raise a question that is long overdue for public consideration: Why are there university leaders and individuals involved in diversity, equity and inclusion committees who are unwilling and/or unqualified to fulfill all of the responsibilities of their positions?

In an effort to address this oversight, let us imagine the following as an example of the conversations that should be taking place if institutions are serious about cultivating inclusion beyond appearances:

Dear deans, associate deans, department heads, diversity fellows, diversity advocates/champions, diversity committee chairs/co-chairs, members of diversity committees and anyone else who aligns themselves with diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and rhetoric:

Thank you for contributing to the DEI mission of our institution and striving to uphold these values as you fulfill the responsibilities of your position. Due to your role in these efforts, it is your responsibility to reach out to your black colleagues during this difficult time of unjust killings of black men and women by law enforcement and tense protests across the country. Demonstrating this support is vital to their experiences on and off campus and our ability to retain and advance diverse faculty. It is essential that we move beyond the proverbial “thoughts and prayers” to sincere self-reflection and strategic action. Despite these expectations, we have learned that our calls for support have mostly gone unanswered. Many of your black colleagues report that they have not heard from you personally.

We are aware that some of you are finding it difficult to extend a show of support right now due to the pandemic and other stressors you are facing. While we recognize those difficulties, please note that the pandemic and other stressors have not ceased for our black colleagues while they contend with heightened threats to their lives and civil liberties, even here in our city.

Sending an email of support acknowledging these hardships would not have required much of your time. It might have gone a long way in comforting those who invest a significant amount of emotional labor to our campus on top of their other responsibilities. This emotional labor is often undervalued while the institution profits from it directly and indirectly.

Others among you may not have reached out because you do not know what to say. As DEI leaders, you should be qualified for these and other challenging conversations about race and social injustice. If you are struggling in this regard, then you may lack the skills necessary for serving on the front lines of diversity, equity and inclusion. We appreciate your interest in this important work. Your positions, however, should be reserved for individuals with cultural humility and multicultural awareness -- capable of communicating across differences and speaking up when others would remain silent. Would you want a well-intentioned, eager but unqualified person responsible for saving you from a fire or performing a life-saving medical procedure? Surely not. Similarly, our underrepresented colleagues do not want to entrust their condition on our campus to incapable hands any longer.

Still, some of you may be struggling to fulfill your responsibilities for more concerning reasons. Perhaps you neglected to build relationships with your black colleagues before this crisis occurred. Understandably, you are finding it uncomfortable to initiate a sensitive conversation with someone whom you have not engaged about mundane topics or attempted to connect with and value as a fellow colleague. How does it look if some of the people involved in an organization’s DEI efforts do not -- or cannot -- cultivate genuine supportive relationships with their diverse colleagues? Such hypocritical behavior further marginalizes our underrepresented faculty and undermines the integrity of our DEI mission statements and initiatives.

Others of you may have avoided reaching out because you recognize that you have contributed to your black colleagues’ exclusion or unequal treatment through macro-/microaggressions and other actions and/or inaction when those colleagues were targeted by others. This is a brave and difficult realization, especially if you know better now and sincerely desire to advance DEI on our campus. Your efforts, however, are only as good as your relationship with those on whose behalf we work. We work for everyone.

By working on DEI initiatives without repairing those relationships, you are more like an agitator than ally. Just as agitators have infiltrated peaceful protests to incite violence, there are agitators who claim space in DEI regimes while (un)intentionally working against diverse faculty. The involvement of such individuals with our committees and leadership roles makes what should be a trusted safe space on campus an unsafe and triggering one instead. To rectify this, we encourage you to first seek forgiveness and genuine reconciliation with these colleagues. Focus on being a good citizen to our campus community without any direct association with our DEI committees. While DEI is everyone’s responsibility, we are not all suited to lead these efforts.

In closing, if you have not reached out to offer support to your black colleagues as we requested, then you are not fulfilling the responsibilities of your position. If any of the above reasons account for your unwillingness and/or inability to do so, then you are also not qualified for the position you accepted. Neither can we assume that you can adequately or fairly evaluate the performances of others and develop effective programming.

Therefore, we ask you to demonstrate integrity, courage and leadership by stepping down from your position. We must make room for the right individuals to initiate and execute true equity and antiracist initiatives. Only then will we be able to restore our credibility and lead the campus to fulfill our promise to be a community for all. Your colleagues are still waiting and the time to act is long overdue.

Sincerely,

The Office of the Vice President and chief officer for diversity, equity and inclusion

Bio

Courtney N. Wright is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As a consultant and conflict resolution practitioner, she assists organizations and education professionals with managing difficult interactions, communicating across cultural differences and developing inclusive leadership and strategic planning practices. She researches in the area of interpersonal communication and is working on a book project about diversity and inclusion in higher education.

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