The experience I am outlining below is less academic and more professional. However, since I work for Virginia Tech, the significance is relevant for both.
As you walk through many of the buildings across campus, you may see a wall of paintings or photos of people that contributed to the University, whether as department head, researcher, or specialist. These tributes tell a story of Virginia Tech’s history – where we came from. Unfortunately, most of those contributions have come from older white males that has unintentionally contributed to the “good ol’ boy” mentality across campus. Though I am not sure how often it is discussed at the student level, it is a constant amongst employees of color and those of the opposite gender. So much so, that many (if not all) of the colleges have been tasked to identify ways to drop the “good ol’ boy” stigma by trying to create an inclusive environment.
The problem is that no one thinks about the photos! Outside of my office, there was a wall of people that did great things on behalf of Virginia Tech across the state. They were award recipients, and unfortunately, all older white men. Actually, that is not true. Of the 40 some odd photos that were on this board, 39 were men, and 1 was a woman. But that breakdown didn’t stop people from referring to it as “the white boy” wall. The number of times I heard students AND employees saying something along the lines of “meet me at…” or “I’m at the white boy wall” was incredibly embarrassing.
On top of that, if you looked at this wall, you might have noticed the underlying message that was being communicated by those photos. You see, of those 40 photos, 37 of the males had photos that were the exact same size – 4” x 6”; two of the males that took center stage on the wall had photos that were 5” x 7”; and the one lone female had a photo that was 3” x 5” – the smallest of them all. Additionally, all 39 males had a gold plaque under their names and the year they won their awards, but the female had nothing. Why was the woman’s photo the smallest and unidentifiable? To further the issue, the wall had not been updated since 2014, when the unidentified woman was the last recipient of the award. Did they decide to do away with the award as soon as a woman was given it? Or did they do away with it because she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
Now in all honesty, I can tell you the answer to every one of my questions, but I had to do a lot of digging first because no one seemed to remember why the board hadn’t been updated. And every time a student stopped and stared at that wall, I couldn’t help but want to run out and explain why it was the way it was, because I didn’t want them to assume we weren’t an inclusive college. But I didn’t, because I had a job to do, and that doesn’t include explaining every hour (particularly at the beginning of the school year) why women are not treated equally and why people of color aren’t even considered.
But that didn’t stop me from putting up a fight. I joined the college’s Diversity Council and pushed for the topic to be on the agenda every month. I annoyed my colleagues endlessly about it and was even told to suck it up. I argued with men AND women about it and challenged them to think about it from the perspective of a student that walks passed the Dean’s suite and sees on one wall, a poster of the college’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and on the opposite, the “white boy” board. It took a year, and then I finally caught the Dean’s attention.
The Dean came out to stare at the wall. He looked at it not as the Dean or as a white male, but as a female employee, current and future, who might walk these halls and see they aren’t represented. He looked at it with the eyes of employees of color who existed but weren’t acknowledged on any walls. Most importantly, he looked at the wall as a student who heard speeches about Virginia Tech’s efforts to be more representative of the population, but the college wasn’t demonstrating that. He saw a failed communication between the university’s history and its hope for the future.
It took me 14 months to get that board off the wall, but it only took the Dean one day.
Has it changed everything? No. But what it did do is remove a subliminal message that told certain groups they weren’t welcome. It was a small change that had an impact.