All Campuses Need Cultural Spaces

Amy N. AndersonAmy N. Anderson

Many people often define “diversity” and “multiculturalism” as representing a variety of races and ethnicities within a campus environment. But diversity and multiculturalism are so much broader than race alone. Even references to “minority” become synonymous with “African-American,” rather than being inclusive of all cultures on campus.

Cultural spaces are limited for minorities in higher education. On many campuses, minority issues are only addressed during cultural weeks and celebrations (discussions, forums, etc.) and there are a limited number of professional development groups specifically geared toward the needs and concerns of faculty of color. Many minority professors and students note that, when they gather for conversation, the dominant race may perceive it as a “movement” or “riot” against the majority, meaning they must gather outside the walls of the institution to feel comfortable discussing the everyday toils of their jobs, life circumstances, etc.

For some Black male students, their experiences with professors and administrators might change based on the way they are dressed—if they are clothed in business casual attire, they are treated with more respect than if they are dressed casually.

Lamarcus J. HallLamarcus J. Hall

The problem is not limited to predominantly White institutions, however. Though the “historically Black” designation would seem to suggest that multiple cultural outlets exist by virtue of the history and background of the university, this is not always the case.

Sometimes, because the institutions serve a population that overwhelmingly looks alike, the focus on culture seems to be lost.  When students are asked about their involvement in the Multicultural Student Center and other events on campus, they often respond with blank stares. Many are unaware of the services offered in this functional area as well as the importance of staying culturally connected. In a university steeped in culture, how do we make it relevant and current to students? If students cannot identify with the older tenants of Black History, how do we support them in their current culture, giving them the space to explore while encouraging them to connect to the past?

In addition to the lack of cultural awareness, there simultaneously exists an issue of threat within the HBCU. There is an overwhelming pressure for uniformity of thought. There is often a misconstrued thought that, because people can identify with one another on race, their experience is the same. “You are a Democrat, right?” is an example of the presumptions that exist on these campuses. Because you are African-American (or Black, Caribbean, etc.) it is assumed that your political views, religions affiliations and overall general opinion align with what is considered to be the mainstream African-American perspective. Having taught several freshmen-oriented classes, advised students and participated in colloquiums across campus it is very apparent that skin color does not dictate beliefs. Our loyalties do not begin and end with our skin color, and faculty, staff and students alike need to feel safe to express these differences in opinion without ridicule.

Instead of using differences as a means of separation, we should use it as an opportunity to learn and bridge gaps; racial and generational for example. One gap that needs further examination is the one that exists between students, faculty and staff at higher education institutions.

Many first-generation, low-income students may not always be able to relate to the often middle-class staff that is serving them. Many struggle to stay in school while simultaneously supporting their families through work study jobs and leftover monies from refund checks. This is quite a burden to bear at such a young age. However, unfortunately it is not one to which all staff and faculty are always able to relate. Many faculty and administrators have never felt the burden of having to financially support a family at 18 or shouldering the burden of their family’s hopes and future dreams. Others have distanced themselves from the “struggle” of their pasts, preferring to forget their own similar experiences. Ultimately, this lack of similarity creates a gap between faulty and administrators and the students we serve on a daily basis. However, this “gap” seems to be pervasive and not just limited to my finite experience.

The disconnect between students, faculty and staff can also lead to a decrease in safe cultural spaces for students even at a place where the majority of employees look like the students. Safety is not just limited to feeling safe to express one’s self and his or her feelings, but it is also linked to how much physical and psychological energy you feel comfortable investing into a place. According to Astin’s theory of involvement, if a student feels disconnected, this can lead to a decrease in involvement and investment in the college experience. One distinct avenue is micro aggressions.

Theorists divided micro aggressions into three distinct categories: micro invalidations, micro insults and micro assaults. Micro invalidations do just that—invalidate the thoughts and feelings of people of color, while micro insults reject their contributions to the workspace. These are both harder to detect than micro assaults, which manifest as overtly racist behavior. Most common in higher ed spaces are micro invalidations. Because we are unable to relate due to our own backgrounds and experiences, we often find ourselves invalidating the experiences that differ from our own. Reasons for the separation are varied and include differences in ages, experience, education and class.

Where do we go from here? Having designated cultural spaces and places welcoming of diverse thoughts, opinions and experiences not only benefit faculty and staff but students as well. During several discussions with the Collegiate 100 chapter in Indianapolis, members constantly express that finding motivation to obtain success can be difficult. Our students are looking for dedicated faculty/staff who are relatable and who can serve as role models. How can we expect minority higher education professionals to reach out to students when they do not feel comfortable themselves?

We cannot accept that placing a Multicultural Center on campus is enough justification to handle minority issues. We should feel comfortable to express ourselves freely. It is important to craft a new conversation that leads with encouragement, as opposed to doubt and mistrust. We allow for discourse with respect outside the confines of stereotypes. We make it the mandate of the entire university to create safe cultural spaces. No longer should it be the burden of the Multicultural Student Center to create safe spaces, but instead the responsibility of every individual from the general administration to the groundskeeper. Whether in casual conversation or formally raising culture awareness, we must continue to find ways to increase access to cultural spaces in the field of higher education.

Lamarcus J. Hall is assistant director of student life and development at Ivy Tech Community College and a curriculum and instruction doctoral student at Purdue University.

Amy N. Anderson is an academic advisor/lecturer at the Center for Academic Excellence at North Carolina A&T State University.

This version replaces an earlier version, which has been deleted from the Web.