What is our role in addressing oppressive speech and action?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Recently, on campus, there has been an ongoing debate about allowing food vendors who have anti-gay agendas to sell their products on campus. There have been debates campus-wide in person and via email. Bigoted comments are on the rise and, inversely, civility is on the decline.  As my colleagues and I discussed this over lunch, the question was this: As professionals, administrators, faculty, and student leaders, what is our role in addressing these comments and acts?

Each person has a different comfort level. I am a very direct and outgoing person with a lot of conviction who stands up for that I believe in. I have repeatedly, and will continue to, address inappropriate and biased speech; however, not everyone is comfortable doing this. My thoughts are this, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” You can see the rest in his letters from Birmingham, Alabama here (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).

Can we reasonable expect our students to have the knowledge and skills to address these types of situations? For residence life staff and student leaders, we could train them on creating and maintaining inclusive and civil communities. We can do active and passive programming, bulletin boards, newsletters, etc. But, is this enough? What about the student on the walk way who yells “Fag!” to a male student wearing skinny jeans, or the roommate who doesn’t want to live with an international student, or the housekeeper who refers to something as “gay”?  Who is responsible for saying that this language and behavior is oppressive and unwelcome in the college community?

This year, there have been two instances when I have approached students and engaged them in conversations about similar actions. Engaging in conversations with these gentlemen was a very challenging but also an immensely rewarding experience. I found that my work towards establishing a relationship with these individuals paved the way for me to engage them seriously in these conversations and hear what they had to say while also being heard.

How else can we engage students, faculty, staff, and administrators in these difficult conversations? What is our role across the campus community in addressing oppressive language/speech and acts? How do you address these situations as a person and professional? How can we encourage others to stand up against these acts?

I leave you with some additional inspiration from Dr. King.

“I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.”  This quote was found here: http://blog.gaiam.com/quotes/authors/martin-luther-king/47127

What are your thoughts as Student Affairs professionals? What is our role in addressing oppressive speech and action?

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