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Panel Discusses Race Relations in Higher Education

Campus Members Participate in "Courageous Conversations"

Dec. 18, 2013

African American woman in a blue dress

Tami "Sunnie" Foy

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Earlier this month, a panel of Cal State Fullerton faculty and staff members addressed the topic of race relations in higher education before a group of about 50 attendees.

"Courageous Conversations: Race Relations in Higher Education" was designed to explore what the campus community should know about race relations, how to proactively prepare to deal with issues of race, how to recognize racial issues if they arise, and how to manage situations that involve race.

Moderated by Matt Englar-Carlson, professor of counseling, panelists included:
Natalie Tran, associate professor of secondary education
Julián Jeffries, assistant professor of reading
Miguel Zavala, assistant professor of secondary education
Catalina Olvera, EPOCHS Project director
Tami "Sunnie" Foy, interim director of the Office of Research Development

Englar-Carlson started off the discussion by pointing out that panelists were speaking based on their own experience and that this would be an environment of mutual respect. The goal was not to necessarily agree but to gain a greater understanding. The following are the three questions that formed the discussion.

What is it like to navigate race, especially at Cal State Fullerton?

"Sometimes faculty members are afraid to discuss race in their classes because they're afraid the discussion will get out of hand," said Foy. "I have a sort of double consciousness as a female and an African-American. Some African-American students tell me they feel invisible. I understand because I worked at another campus where I was the only African American. I couldn't wait to get out of there."

The panelists noted that Caucasians often have an unearned privilege in this country. They aren't judged simply based on the color of their skin. This simple recognition can often help white majorities better understand some of the problems people of other races encounter.

"I look at the theory of racial microaggressions," said Zavala. "These are more subtle, less overt and often unconscious. It's sometimes expressed by tokenism or a 'these people always ...' sort of consciousness. These aren't necessarily explicit but these prevailing feelings can create hostile environments or make people of color feel as if they are the 'defacto' point person for their race."

The term "microaggression" was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color." Sue borrowed the term from psychiatrist Chester Pierce who developed it in the 1970s.

Often, the person giving the message is unaware of the hidden messages being sent. But it does demonstrate that there may be biased feelings and attitudes that harm people of color.

"I was raised in Argentina but I'm seen as a white Latino," said Jeffries. "People sometimes think I'm 'exotic' because of my accent. I'm in a sort of strange space because others aren't sure of my ethnicity and that sometimes affects how they treat me."

"As an Asian-American, we are often considered the 'safe' minority," said Tran. "We're perceived as not being aggressive. Or good at math. And, to date, there has been very little research done on the role of Asian American students and women in higher education. The invisibility many Asian Americans feel is almost a Catch 22. It allows you to move through the system but it may hinder you as well."

"As a Latina, I often see that Latinas will seek one another out," said Olvera. "We are connected to one another not just by race but also by gender. I notice in many groups, that females are not always heard."

Looking at your experience on campus, how do you see microaggression?

"Often the history of people of color isn't represented," said Jeffries. "There is a huge focus on technological education but not enough on race and issues. I think there is sometimes a concern about how much we should talk about race. That's why I really like study abroad opportunities for students. It's good for them to feel a little uncomfortable in some other place where they may not completely understand the language and the customs. It gives students insight."

"Talking about race can be uncomfortable," said Foy. "That makes it easy not to talk about it. But then we become desensitized and that can lead to resentment. That's why, even if it may feel uncomfortable, I think it is good to have these discussions."

In fact, Olvera said, work is underway to develop faculty-mentoring workshops. "We need to realize that ethnic groups aren't homogenous," she said. "We need to educate one another."

Are there spaces on campus where you feel safe?

Panelists agreed that meeting with other members of their gender and race provides support and can lead to advocacy work in the community. Those present affirmed that more dialogue enhances understanding.

"People make assumptions about based on information they don't have," said Tran. "The more we communicate, the better we understand one another."

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