Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
(Frederick Douglass in a letter to an abolitionist associate, 1848)
Microaggressions. Macroaggressions. Racism. Bad behavior. These have not diminished after George Floyd’s murder. They have been perpetrated before and continue still, even in the halls of academia. We feel the impacts and continue to grieve. And while we know that we want and need to effect change on our campuses, knowing exactly how to exact lasting change is challenging.
In her article, “Racelighting and Inauthentic Allyship: How To Recognize It and How To Change It,” Liann Herder (2022) describes Dr. J. Luke Wood’s kindergarten experiences with racism and blatant name-calling. Wood recalls, “I knew to put it in the ‘Racism Box,’ and knew that I wasn’t inviting them to my birthday party,’ [... ] ‘But as I got older, [those epithets] became more subtle—dismissive looks and put-downs. I didn’t know what to do with that.’” Herder goes on to name Wood’s experience as attribution ambiguity. Defined by Baumeister and Vohs (2007), attributional ambiguity is “a psychological state of uncertainty about the cause of a person’s outcomes or treatment.” Couple attributional ambiguity with “racelighting” (Wood and Harris, 2021) where “People of Color question their own thoughts and actions due to systematically delivered racialized messages that make them second guess their own lived experiences with racism,” and it becomes clear that the road to genuine allyship needs to extend beyond performative gestures of solidarity.
As we pass the two-year mark of George Floyd’s murder, we must pause and take note of where we are as a nation, as people, as faculty. Furthermore, we need to both acknowledge the attribution ambiguity and racelighting experienced by California community college students, faculty, and academic professionals, as well as find the courage to evaluate our own part in consciously or unconsciously normalizing this attribution ambiguity and racelighting on our campuses. This means we must learn and utilize strategies to call out ambiguous statements when we hear them in meetings or see them in emails, create spaces of strength and protection for our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) colleagues where there are none, destabilize power imbalances and hierarchies in order to diversify leadership and amplify BIPOC voices, and defuse instances of racelighting.
What follows is a list of strategies that can help diffuse behavior that dehumanizes, discombobulates, aims to assert dominance, or reinforces existing hierarchies that excludes or dismisses the divergent opinions or ideas on our campuses. We need to call out bad behavior for what it is and instead normalize behavior that creates and sustains safer professional work environments for all.
RESPONDING TO ATTRIBUTION AMBIGUITY OR RACELIGHTING INCIDENT:
Dr. Wood and Dr. Harris (2020) developed a strategy with the easy-to-remember acronym, R.A.V.E.N., to provide possible approaches for dealing with microaggressions. Below are a few phrases under each of the approaches in R.A.V.E.N. that we have found useful, helpful, and appropriate to professional settings:
Redirect, intervene, correct, or pull the person aside. This is an approach to use with colleagues you know well. It takes empathy and openness on both sides:
“I’d like to speak confidentially with you about something. I’m wondering if you’re aware that that statement/image/tone/look you used/gave/had the impact of dehumanizing/belittling/affirming certain stereotypes/etc. That may not have been your intention, but I have to bring to your attention the impact. I hope you’re willing to reflect on what I’m saying and think about what kind of follow-up might generate healing and growth.” [if true and your colleague is willing, proceed with “I’m happy to talk more about it and/or offer suggestions for resources/people to consult with regarding this matter”]
Ask probing questions for clarity:
“I think I heard you say [repeat phrasing]. What do you mean by that?”
“I want to make sure I understand what you were saying. What I heard was [repeat phrasing]. Am I understanding correctly?”
Values clarification: Bring the conversation back to your college, academic senate, or group values by saying:
“We are working intentionally to create a space that is safe and welcoming for all. What you just said is not in alignment and/or inconsistent with our institutional values that prioritize equity and inclusion.”
“Because we value diverse ideas and perspectives, we will listen to our colleagues respectfully.”
Or, if you are needing to make your point and stop inappropriate comments, strongly assert one of the following phrases and move to the next item on the agenda:
“What you just said is not socially acceptable; let’s reframe that to a positive.”
“That comment is harmful to others because [explain the reason].”
Emphasize your own thoughts and feelings: Do this by shifting to “I” statements, such as the following:
“When I hear your comment, I think/feel…“
“In my experience, many people might take that to mean [explain your interpretation]. Am I understanding this correctly?”
Next steps: Focus on the action and accountability and say something like the following:
“The next time you encounter this situation, you may want to consider doing…”
“Going forward, we will include a ‘parking lot’ for questions and comments so that we do not interrupt or cut off our colleagues and that everyone who wants to share ideas has an opportunity to do so.”
WHAT TO SAY IF YOU GOT IT WRONG AS A LEADER:
No one is perfect and you will get it wrong sometimes, so give yourself grace and space to correct and grow. Accepting constructive criticism and seeking advice are two signs of a strong leader. If you say something that was taken outside of your original intent or was received negatively and resulted in harm to someone, avoid the urge to explain your intent, because no matter your intent, the harm still happened. Remember, intent is not obvious, but behavior is. Taking ownership and addressing your own mistakes will help you evolve as a leader and sets a positive example of strong leadership.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN ENGAGING IN SOCIAL JUSTICE WORK AND ANTIRACIST PRACTICES:
- Am I merely intellectualizing/giving lip service or am I truly actualizing a safe space for diverse voices from multiple perspectives?
- Am I “going along to get along” or am I going to speak up when something is “off”?
- Will I speak up when I see exclusionary behavior or hear unwarranted, harmful comments?
- Will I celebrate the discomfort? Am I willing to grow, listen, engage, and acknowledge others for their diverse perspectives?
- Am I engaging in liberation and healing and not self-loathing or denial?
We hope that as faculty we remember that we all have love and light to give. Let’s truly begin to embrace it and continue to grow.
A FEW OTHER RESOURCES TO CONSULT FOR FURTHER SUPPORT:
Responding to Microaggressions
ASCCC Effective Dialogue Tools
Courageous Conversation Toolkit
Tools for Building Professional Community
Open Rawness Handout
PBS Student Clips on Microassaults and Microinvalidations
YouTube Video on Microaggressions
UCLA Handout on Microaggressions
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Attributional ambiguity. In Encyclopedia of social psychology (1). SAGE. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412956253.n40.
Harris, F. & Wood, L. (2020). How to respond to racial microaggressions when they occur. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/opinion/article/15106837/how-to-respond-to-racial-microaggressions-when-they-occur.
Harris, F. & Wood, L. (2021). Racelighting: A prevalent version of gaslighting facing people of color. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/opinion/article/15108651/racelighting-a-prevalent-version-of-gaslighting-facing-people-of-color.
Herder, Liann (2022). Racelighting and inauthentic allyship: How to recognize it and how to change it. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://www.diverseeducation.com/demographics/article/15290943/racelighting-and-inauthentic-allyship-how-to-recognize-it-and-how-to-change-it.