Intersectionality and FSL

A few weeks ago I assisted in facilitating a dialogue for Fraternity and Sorority leaders at a different institution. The demographics of this institution are very similar to Virginia Tech; large, predominantly white, with the majority of students coming from upper middle-class families. This dialogue was made up of FSL leaders that represented organizations across four different councils, Panhellenic Council (PC), Interfraternity Council (IFC), National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), and Multicultural Greek Council (MGC). Throughout the day I noticed most of the dialogue being dominated by members of the Panhellenic and Interfraternity councils, until one question came up about Homecoming.

One of the facilitators asked, “Does everyone really participate in building Homecoming floats?”

One of the Panhellenic women answered, “Of course everybody does, it’s a tradition!”

At this point in the dialogue, the NPHC President stood up and said, “Not everyone participates in the Homecoming floats. The rule is only three organizations per float and our organizations don’t have a lot of money, so often we’re not invited to partner with other organizations.”

As the day progressed, more NPHC and MGC members stood up and gave their input about their experience in Greek Life on campus and later speaking with a Panhellenic women, she confided in me, “I had no idea other students felt that way, what can we do to make it better?”

Listening to this discussion and different students’ experiences made me reflect that overall these students were all in Greek Letter Organizations, but all had different lived experiences within the same campus community. As an educator, I have to be aware that even within a specific community there are still disparities and differences between the participating individuals and to keep in mind what educational practices and curriculum can be introduced to bridge the gaps.

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Working in an All-Male Residence Hall, Living at the Intersection of Male and Gay

With my work in student affairs so often centering on diversity and inclusion, it sometimes feels like some ideas can easily become buzzwords.  “Intersectionality” is one example of that.  Since everyone has multiple identities, the idea is omnipresent, and though I’d never deny that it is useful construct, the fact that it is always present makes it easy to view in a superficial way.  For a while, intersectionality was becoming a buzzword in my practice, but recent events in my work have made me reconsider why exactly it’s important in the work that I do. 

One of the new priorities of my department is “knowing and being known,” a philosophy I can easily get behind considering my view on how we learn.  Since I believe we learn with others, a key component is understanding those you are learning with and from.  While I think it makes a great deal of sense for this new priority to show up on my evaluation, it’s unfortunately more easily stated than assessed.  In working through my mid-year evaluation, I admitted that knowing and being known was a philosophical priority, but incorporating it into my daily work was more difficult than executing other administrative tasks that are more easily assessed.  Toward the end of the evaluative conversation, I also remarked that knowing and being known was difficult for me as a gay man, serving in all-male residence halls.  With our meeting near its end, my supervisor said it might we worth discussing that point more in a future meeting, and I ended up thinking about it much more after.

Though it was the first time in a long time that I reflected about my identity within an all-male residence hall, it was something I had considered extensively as I entered my ARLC role at Tech.  Upon finding out that I would be living and working in Barringer Hall, an all-residence hall at Tech, my initial response was anxiety. To an extent, it might have been due to the uncertainty of the situation, having served exclusively in a coed living-learning community in my undergraduate leadership roles.  However, a more specific concern that kept coming to mind was what it might be like to work with all men.  Never had I considered myself “one of the boys,” and a vast majority of my friends and mentors were women.  For a long time, the reasons for that remained a mystery to me, and while it started to make more sense as I came to identify as a gay man, it wasn’t something that I considered deeply until recently.

From early on, it was apparent to me that gender and sexual orientation, though different, are related.  In middle school, anything not traditionally masculine was touted as “gay.”  Though this was terrifying to me before I came out, once I came to realize and accept I was gay, it was refreshingly liberating.  While in some ways it seemed like an attack on my masculinity, it made the ways I approached gender norms far more socially acceptable.  I was much less concerned about how my mannerisms, hobbies, and outward expression were perceived when the greatest consequence was someone threatening me by (quite accurately) calling me gay.  That said, I realized that these behaviors had much more to do with my gender expression than my sexual orientation.  However, with my sexual orientation already defying typical gender expectations, the boundaries of what was gender appropriate seemed much more fluid.  While the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” lends itself to obvious hyper-masculine answers, the simple addition of one word to “What does it mean to be a gay man?” seems more ambiguous.  It can mean sports or style, cars or cooking, hunting or homemaking, some beers at the bar or sauvignon blanc at book club.

With that in mind, I think my difficulty in knowing and being known in an all-male residence hall has to do with “knowing” and “being known” as separate issues.  I remember thinking as a Resident Mentor of roughly fifty students as an undergraduate student that getting to know each of them individually was impossible, and now working in a community of four hundred, I acknowledge that it’s the reality that I won’t get to know every student on a personal level.  I think a common pitfall of working with college students is encountered even in considering the phrase “college students.”  If the mental image of spurred is much like a google search, you might picture a group of young, preppy, primarily white people on a quad smiling and holding backpacks.  Adding the further specification of gender and saying “college men,” for me, creates a more specific mental image that is whiter, straighter, richer, and ingrained in a “bro culture.”  While I know that picture isn’t inclusive, it’s unfortunate how my experience and confirmation bias continue to propagate that idea in my mind.

As I consider it more, it becomes clearer that the inaccurate generalization behind this mental image is a barrier to knowing the students I serve, and while not a solution, the concept intersectionality is a tool to clear it.  Sort of like asking the question “What does it mean to be a man?” asking myself “What does it mean to serve college men in the residence hall?” seems limiting since I don’t every picture the full spectrum of people.  However, considering different intersectional identities paints a more nuanced picture of my role.  What does it mean to work in the residence hall to serve college men who are trans?  Who are international students?  Who are black?  Who are first generation?  Who are from a lower socioeconomic status?  When working with individuals, it’s important to ask these questions as they pertain to that specific person.  However, when working for the hall as a whole, I think it’s important to continue asking these sort of questions to ensure that my practice is serving all students, not just those who look like the google search result.

While it’s easy to consider how I might make changes in “knowing,” “being known” is more difficult.  In knowing, I am the subject; in being known, I am the object of someone else’s knowing.   Hence, the most I can do is present myself authentically, though that is more easily said that done as showing up authentically requires an element of vulnerability.  At this point in my life and career as an educator, it feel natural for me to disclose my identities.  It seems most productive and fair to let the students I work with know my identities and biases so they why I do the work I do.

However, I think being forthright about being gay, particularly in an all-male environment causes me to put up some walls given the interplay between gender and sexual orientation.  It seems easier to be perceived as cold, no-nonsense, and hyper-competent in order to be seen as authoritative rather than weak as a gay man among men might.  There is a level of discomfort in spending a great amount of time engaging with residents in residential spaces (particularly in a building with traditional style bathrooms), as I fear being associated with predatory stereotypes of gay men.  Though I’ve never been given reason to be fearful at Tech, I can’t totally shake the thought of being harassed or assaulted by a group of straight men for my sexual orientation.

While the underlying issues that cause my discomfort in being known aren’t easily addressed, I believe that being known is part of the gradual solution.  Dialogue is key, and in order to engage it authentically, I must bring all aspects of myself to the table.  While on one hand it can be tiring to discuss identity and intersectionality with those new to it, I’ve chosen this path as an educator.  It’s unreasonable to expect myself to drop the walls at all times, in every setting, but I believe my honesty and authenticity in examining intersectionality is key to encouraging others to do the same.  While working in an all-male hall was not my preference and was far from easy, my work toward knowing and being known has made a difference in my understanding of intersectionality, the way I use it in my practice, and hopefully the way it is understood by the students with whom I work.

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Intersectionality in my work

As I am graduating in May, I am actively applying for jobs.  I am pursuing positions in academic advising roles, and as is standard in advising, I am submitting my advising philosophy.  This document is something I created based on studying theories of student development as well as advising models.  The theory that my approach is rooted in is called Self-Authorship and it was developed by Dr. Baxter Magolda at the Miami University of Ohio through a 25-year longitudinal study.  This theory resonated with me as it felt very much like my experience (See image below).  When I first learned about this theory I was able to map my life onto it easily and give examples of being at crossroads at many dimensions.

This theory, however, has rightfully come under some scrutiny as the sample was only white women who attended Miami University and therefore how could this theory be applied to other identities?  For instances, Self Authorship aspires to a sense of independence, but what about in cultures where interdependence is the ideal?  As I recently have been reading critiques from scholars who are not white women I have started to think about how self-authorship could at its core exist but still support/honor/allow for variations in cultural values.  What I have come to is that while no matter the outcome, prompting students to move into these “crossroads”  these areas of questioning why they do things, is necessary.  No matter what they decide to do with that information after the fact, it is critical that they examine their decision making in these three domains.

That was a long rambling build up to how I want to use intersectionality in my work.  It’s important to know that this theory (and not so much the critiques) is ubiquitous in academic advising.  I have applied for multiple positions where it is the overarching office philosophy, which is problematic because it is basically saying that all students should strive for development that is created out of whiteness.  So, in my advising philosophy, I have updated it to include my own evolutions on Self-Authorship to both recognize that this theory is valuable but also that it is not inclusive/inviting.  Moving forward I think it’s important to raise up theories of marginalized student development especially in predominantly white spaces.  Also to understand that when we think of intersecting identities, there is not one developmental theory that can be applied to all students.  Therefore, building authentic relationships with students to address their individual needs is necessary and not assume because they were a black woman they are having one experience or another.  And on a bigger scale, pushing back against these kind of theories that are developed based on one type of experience.

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My legacy of multiple hats

I wear multiple hats. I am male, Igbo, African, Counselor, Behavior Analyst, Social Justice Advocate, Autism and special needs ambassador, Dad, Student, Soccer-lover, VT Student, Jazz-lover, Christian, Roanoke resident, and more. I embody multiple identities. Just like everyone else, these identities intersect. In some identity groupings, I belong to the numerical majority, and yet in others, I am in the subordinate group. Membership of identity groups comes with unearned privileges, power, and oppression. One can enjoy multiple privileges or multiple oppressions depending on how they intersect. For me, intersectionality is a fascinating element of human identity groupings. In a sense, we are one, yet in another, we are different. The idea that we share our subordinate and dominant identities in unique clusters and configurations is proof of human universality.

And so what?

If you haven’t done so yet, make a list of your dominant/subordinate statuses, and identify your privileges. Privileges refer to those “special rights, advantages, or immunity granted or available” to you just because you are a member of that group. For example, there is such a thing as male privilege, white privilege and more.

You may begin with your dominant group: race, gender, gender expression, socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion, profession, education, nationality, geographical location, and so on. For example, what privileges do you currently enjoy merely because of your gender? How does it compare with those of others, and what might you do to bridge the gap for one person nearest to you?

The goal is to hopefully become more aware of how your privilege might be someone else’s oppression. Privileges are largely unearned, especially if historical antecedents are appropriated. Blame and guilt are not the appropriate purposes for this exercise. Deliberate advocacy and action to minimize oppression and promote equality and justice for all is the preferred pursuit.

The aspiration to change the world is amazing, even more, amazing is the action to change the world of one oppressed person you see. What’s something you could do today, within your sphere of influence, to share, redistribute and equalize privilege?

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Multiple Subordination: A Reality of Intersectionality

The subject of intersectionality makes me wonder what it feels like to be positioned in a subordinate category across multiple dimensions. Recently, Ngozi, a friend of mine talked about how she is subordinated in various identity categories and intersected aspects of these identities. In her own words, she stated as follows “I am a minority even amongst minorities, and I feel like a victim of man-made categories.” In a sense, I agree that identity categories, their labels, meanings, consequences, and social values attached to them, are primarily imposed by the dominant majority. It doesn’t matter how long ago in history the labeling are were constructed, they remain social constructions passed on from generation to generation. The labels change or morph as power differentials interplay with structures of privilege-oppression. Identity categorization has consequences, and it is crucial to raise awareness about the various ways these categories and their intersections result in privilege and subordination. The process of labeling or naming a group or attaching meanings to them involves unequal-power. Subordinated people may be included in naming themselves, but the characterization that comes with the name may be historically subverted by the privileged.

Ngozi identifies as transgender, middle-aged, Igbo Nigerian, born and raised by materially deprived low-income parents in a low-income rural village. She belongs to a little-known Christian denomination. In college, she majored in Igbo philosophy. She experiences discrimination because of her gender, and even by other transgender individuals who are younger. Her country of origin is one of those described with the ‘S’ hole word by a well-known political leader. For her, life in the United States comes with a daily reminder that her country and others from her continent are less and inferior. Some of the nationality-based discrimination is legal, but discriminatory all the same. The inability to work, obtain a student loan, and access to basic needs which her peers have both choice and access to, are legally denied because of her nationality. Racially speaking, she belongs to the black race. Now, there is a subtle but real distinction between being Back African and Black American. Numerically and in some other essential respects, Black Africans in the United States report been treated as less black than their counterparts born in America. When conversations about undergraduate majors come up, she feels ashamed and uncomfortable because her major is far from being fancy or in the majority. Amongst Christians, she is treated as an outlier, and this deepens her frustration. Despite her well-paying job, the wealth she has amassed for herself, she has been unable to buy property in her dream neighborhood for reasons other than affordability.
Ngozi’s identity categories intersect in multiple subordinated ways, and yet Ngozi admits that intersectionality lessens the burden of exclusivity. It could have been worse.

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Intersectionality: Shifting the Curriculum of Design

As an active member of the International Archiving of Women in Architecture (IAWA), I am tasked with researching female architects to bring light to their contribution to society within field of architecture. I have come across many wonderful women, both national and international, but have rarely found there to be women of color present. The information we can research is solely based on what gets donated to special collections at Virginia Tech. While there is no control over what comes into the library, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why we simply overlook that there are no women of color represented? If we are confronting the oppression of women in architecture, shouldn’t that mean all women? It’s interesting that while we think we are doing something good for our discipline and diversity, we are still cultivating oppression by not acknowledging a question that makes us feel uncomfortable to ask. People don’t like to push past their comfort zone, so things stay the same. Recently I was walking through an undergraduate studio and saw they were doing a project I did as an undergrad, in 2004. I asked one of the students to tell me about their projects thus far in the semester and the projects were almost identical to what I was doing fifteen years ago. Architecture professors are still talking about the same white “starchitects” and showing the same presentation from a decade ago.  If the curriculum doesn’t change, how can we?

Curriculum is broadly defined as “the totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process. We all experience things differently, especially those who possess multiple layered identities.  Design teachers aren’t changing their methods to accommodate these groups, and they are not teaching their students how to design for them.  Its a setback times two. Within the boundaries of design education lies this silent culture of inequity.  It’s not so silent in the “real world” and some of these students graduate unprepared. This leads me to the belief that curriculum of design education should be modified to reach a long-term goal of self-awareness, both in students and teachers, inclusive design methods, and individualized teaching methods. We all learn differently, so educators need to now how to tech differently when needed. Diversity and inclusion need to be recognized, practiced, and embedded into everyday living, but what my trade also needs is to include is a curriculum that teaches students how to implement this in the design process.

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Intersectionality and paleontology

I remember sitting around the campfire after a long day of field work looking for fossils. My previous mentor was telling a story, about a person of color who came to speak to a conference of vertebrate paleontologists. The speaker had stepped onto the stage and apparently began their talk with “Wow, you all put the pale in paleontology.” While this was delivered at the time as a joke, I think about it often, especially when I am at a vertebrate paleontology or any science conference. The rooms are often filled predominantly with men, white men, to be precise.

 

Paleontology is a historical science, and is historically male. As one reads about the history of the earliest paleontologists, they are overwhelmingly met with male names (with the exception of legends like Mary Anning) . Fortunately, paleontology today is seeing more and more women each year at our annual conference, which is a strong step forward for our science. However, women are still a small portion of career-holding paleontologists today. A prime issue that this presents is representation and retention of career paleontologists in the work-force. It is often easier for white men in paleontology to see others like them in power positions that they can identify with, more than women. Fortunately, The Bearded Lady Project is actively working to bride the representation gap by highlighting the talented female paleontologists today. But an issue still remains, few paleontologists belong to underrepresented minorities. As a field, we are still pushing for inclusivity and for building a diverse community of scientists and people. But what can the individual do in these efforts?

 

This is what I want to better understand through this Graduate Course. To be perfectly frank, I’m not sure what I can do to promote diversity in paleontology. Looking at the current attendees of our societal conference, it seems like efforts need to be focused on the individuals not yet in college. Most likely on those students in primary school. But how? How do we show the younger generation that they belong in this field and that we welcome them in the years to come? Is outreach enough? How do we bridge the representation gap for paleontologists of color, both present and future? I have no answers to these questions, but in my graduate work, I put a large emphasis in outreach and science communication. So  maybe I can use my skills to reach out to underrepresented groups to encourage them that science (specifically vertebrate paleontology) welcomes them. I want to develop my part in the years to come, trying to support an inclusive and intersectional vertebrate paleontology. Until then, I will keep inclusivity and intersectionality at the forefront of my mind in the classroom, and in mentoring students. I feel that building a comfortable environment for education and expression is an integral first step for many future scientists.

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Intersections of Soil Science

In agriculture and soil science, there is an enormous lack of diversity. The field is overwhelmingly white, male, and from rural areas. While the diversity of students in my field seems to be increasing, it’s still not representative, and the diversity of the faculty is even less so.  The challenges faced by students who do not identify with the majority groups can make students feel unwelcome. Embracing the intersectionality of students and faculty is an important part of creating an inclusive environment.

In terms of faculty, recruiting and hiring more diverse faculty is incredibly important, and recognizing implicit biases during the hiring process that affect the perception of how qualified a woman of color is compared to a white man candidate is the first step towards this goal. The next part is to make sure the environment supports all faculty. It can be difficult to foresee all the challenges faced by the intersections of race, gender, and any other identities that may not be externally visible to others. I think its important to listen to faculty about their experiences and take appropriate steps to address challenges.  The department functions better when all faculty have the support to do their best work.

In terms of student diversity, having representation in faculty can go a long ways to make students feel like they belong. As an instructor, I also need to keep in mind the intersectionality of students when I teach. A lot of students deal with a lot of issues, and as an instructor, most of these issues are not apparent to me. If I notice students struggling, missing class, or not turning in assignments, my instinct is to assume the student is lazy or doesn’t care, but I need to remember that students have lives outside of the classroom and there may be something else going on. What I can do is reach out to the student and try to work with them so they don’t end up dropping or failing the course. As a faculty member, mentoring students is also a way to use intersectionality. Supporting students who want to get involved in research can really get students involved, feeling like they belong, and set them up for success after graduation.

I think the main is to keep in mind that everyone has different experiences, and listening and supporting students and faculty goes a long way towards an inclusive environment.

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Intersectionality in the Workplace

I am consistently aware of intersectionality in my work. My work with the Black Male Excellence Network and the Ujima Living Learning Community has positioned me to interact with students of color, the majority of which are Black. In this work, I have to be conscious of the multiple oppressions that these students may be facing at any given time. For example, one young lady that I have worked with in the past is Black, first generation, and of low socioeconomic status. The ways that I interact with her, the types of methods I suggest, and the very core of our conversations are different given these aspects of her identity. For example, I usually will suggest that students read the textbook and take notes from it in order to prepare for class. I almost made this suggestion to her until I remembered that she told me that she could not afford her textbooks. This situation reminded me of the holistic nature of the work we do and that we cannot simply follow a formula for every student that we come in contact with.

Additionally, I must continue to educate myself of the multiple jeopardies that the students I serve face in order to be what I deem the most effective practitioner that I can be.

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Introduction

Hello! My name is Emily Weeks and I use she/her/hers pronouns. I’m a second year in the Master’s of Higher Education Program and outside of class I am a Graduate Assistant for the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program. I also am doing a practicum at Radford University with their Fraternity and Sorority Life Office.

I’m a verbal processor and I tend to ask a lot of questions (so sorry in advanced).

In the small amount of free time that I have as a graduate student, I love reading. I just finished a book called “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah (it’s about to be made into a movie) which is about two sisters living in Nazi occupied France. One sister defies the Nazis by smuggling Jewish children out of the lines to the trains to take them to concentration camps and hides them at an orphanage, while the other sister hides British and American airmen shot down over France. It’s an incredible story and I highly recommend!

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