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Navigating Bias Incidents on Campus as an Administrator

During my tenure as an assistant dean of students, I was involved in a committee charged with responding to reported bias incidents on campus. When a member of the campus community experienced, witnessed or were aware of something that they believed to be bias, they could use an online form to report the incident anonymously. Once a week, this committee I was a part of would read over all the cases and decide how they should be handled.

The committee was made up of several administrators across the university. We had representation from fraternity and sorority life, residential programs, identity-based resource centers (Women’s Center, LGBTQ+ Center, Multicultural center, etc.), campus police, athletics and the judicial administrator’s office. Depending on how much was known from the case, we would invite staff members who may be aware of the incident or have a close connection to the individual(s) or communities involved.

Andrew MartinezAndrew Martinez

There were weeks where we had only a few cases, usually within residential programs or fraternity and sorority life where students had racially charged conversations or some form of vandalism that was found to be offensive by other residents. We would see a pattern of this behavior, have the appropriate residential staff respond to the people involved, and plan to have building-wide (or sometimes even larger) educational programming to prevent these incidents from occurring again and educate the broader community on why such actions were wrong.

I found the work on this committee extremely rewarding, since many of the students I worked with had little faith in the system but trusted me. Most of the time, however, I acted as a fly on the wall. I wanted to understand what assumptions were being made of the case, how people in the room were defining bias, and how interpersonal relationships could affect the outcome of the case.

While I felt that the committee was effective, and many of those involved had well-intentions, as a young professional working in multicultural affairs, the “diversity staff” of the committee at times felt very tokenizing. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is really important to have representation on committees like this, and I cannot fault the institution for having very few members of the administration who may share the identities of those who were constantly marginalized; however, it can be awkward when everyone looks at you to decide whether it is offensive for a White student to use a stereotypical image of a Mexican man for his event featuring a menu of Mexican food.

I remember thinking that the image used was distasteful. The person who reported it was highly offended and tied it to a series of other incidents on campus that mocked Mexican culture, especially during a time where students were yelling “build a wall” around the Latinx-themed residential building. However, did I believe that person meant to offend someone? When choosing the image, was this person thinking, “let me anger the Latinx students on campus?” Not really.

Finally, someone asked: “Andrew, what do you think?” All eyes were on me. I wanted to say, “It’s racist,” but I knew that wouldn’t be effective. The conversation would then turn on me, and people would begin to dissect the actions of the student and question whether I thought the student was racist — which is not what I wanted to imply.

Instead, I said, yes, it’s offensive, especially given the campus climate after a series of incidents that happened the year prior dealing with cultural appropriation. I remember the committee being unconvinced. They agreed that the image was inappropriate (after reading the complaint and getting context on why the image was a negative stereotype), but the initial complaint wanted the entire event canceled and they felt that was too harsh of a punishment.

What complicated the case was that this event was actually part of the student’s grade for a class he was taking. This class allowed its students to take over an on-campus dining facility, give it a theme, cook meals related to the theme, and be in charge of the marketing/business plan of the night.

The question becomes, is this incident worth having the student work with their professor to figure out a way to resolve this issue by postponing the event and changing it so that a part of the campus community feels heard and supported? While no one said it, I know there were some  who thought the students should get over it, or maybe thought that it was unfair for the student to have to figure out his grade for something he did not mean to do. Fortunately, while we debated different ways to handle this incident, I was frantically searching Facebook for details of the event to see if there were any explicitly racially-charged marketing attempts — and unsurprisingly, I found a meme created by the student with infamous drug-lord El Chapo that encouraged people to attend the event.

Score! This should be easy now. I turn my laptop, and show that this student knew what he was doing. If he didn’t, then he needed to learn a lesson. With the added “evidence” to the case, everyone agreed that this was a teachable moment, and we needed to take a strong stance on it. The event was postponed and I believe the diversity affairs staff of his school met with him to talk about the situation and come up with a way for him to earn his grade.

I believe these types of committees exist on campuses throughout the nation. As a young professional of color, I felt like I had a unique authority within the committee as the “Latinx” voice, yet I did not want to rely on it. The times where I assume they would rely on me to lead the conversation, I wanted to run away from it. Because of how polarizing campus activism could be, I remember feeling “if I, the Latinx staff member, upset the Latinx community, then what?” The pressure to “get it right” was daunting, and just being part of the committee associated me with the outcome, even if I didn’t agree with it. As I was navigating the tension of working with students who thought they knew what was best for “the community” (even when it pitted other marginalized communities against them), I felt that the best strategy was to listen and act accordingly instead of act as the voice of wisdom because I identified with the students who were most affected.

I share this to demonstrate how complicated it can be to navigate bias on campus. Everyone has something to learn during these instances — not only the perpetrator, but the victim, the communities involved and the staff that is charged with handling the case. Everyone also wants to be heard — even if they are wrong. If you are on one of these committees, don’t feel ashamed for feeling similarly. My biggest regret was not being as unapologetically honest since I felt that in order to best support my students, I had to pick and choose what battles I wanted to have. Luckily, I had colleagues that I could debrief with that helped me navigate this tension. If you completely disagree with my approach, that’s fine too. I’m here to listen and to learn, but one thing is certain, if you are on these types of committees, you need to welcome being vulnerable and try your best to understand those who “just don’t get it.”

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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