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Racially Charged Language Inhibits Inclusive Cultures

Leaving home for the first time and going off to college is an exciting and stressful time for tens of thousands of students across the U.S. each year. Leaving the familiarity of family, friends and community behind and entering an often much more diverse community filled with people with different social, political, religious, racial, national, and sexual orientation backgrounds can create challenges. Luckily, there is currently an effort across the United States to reduce the impact of potential biases by educating people on and promoting the benefits of having diversity in communities, businesses, schools and social groups people belong to. These efforts are more commonly known as Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Initiatives. One example of a college that seems to have it right with respect to EDI policies is the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. A brief review follows.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Policies and Programs

Faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire (UWEC) have incorporated EDI initiatives into their core mission. The core mission is to create an inclusive community where all students thrive and find the programs and support needed to reach their full potential. Too often, members of underrepresented groups feel alienated and/or are unconsciously or consciously discriminated against resulting in them transferring schools or dropping out completely.

To operationalize this mission, the faculty, staff and administration came together setting goals surrounding student enrollment and retainage specifically for underrepresented groups. The faculty have common language surrounding EDI within all course syllabi and encourage all their students to help make the classroom environment more welcoming and inclusive to all. They have all agreed to participate in EDI initiatives in some way and to have that participation be a part of their annual performance review. In 2017, they created the first office of EDI and hired an Assistant Chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to lead the effort.

UWEC has also developed a 12-week training program called Circles of Change to start an open in-person dialogue about race throughout the region the university is located within. Launched as a pilot in the Spring of 2017, the fall of 2017 had more than 120 people participating in Circles of Change action groups, gathering weekly to discuss race relations on campus and in the community.

Let’s get back to why instances of bias against others occur.

Some people have unconscious biases and stereotypical beliefs that can lead to making poor decisions. This can be magnified by instances of bias on college campuses. Many colleges and universities across the country have implemented freshman orientation programs to help students transition into college life and to make them feel welcome.

There is a need for diversity and inclusivity training. During 2017, there were many reported instances of racial bias through the use of racial slurs on college and university campuses. Many were reported during the September to December 2017 period, magnifying the growing need for EDI programs on campus. The following examples were chosen not only to illustrate the hateful speech but to describe admirable responses by the universities affected.

  1. At Eastern Michigan University, racial fliers promoting a white supremacist organization was found posted on several buildings. Officials removed them because they ran counter to the school's values. According to a spokesperson, "The fliers and the hateful, racist causes they promote run completely counter to Eastern’s core values of diversity, inclusiveness and respect.”

  2. At Cabrini University in Radnor PA, a number of instances were reported of the words “N-word go away” written on the dormitory room door of a female black student and a second occurrence stating “go away too” just a few days later. The reaction of the university was: “As we ensure a thorough investigation into the incident, we want to remind everyone that hate has no home on our campus — hate speech of any kind goes against who we are as an institution and as a diverse community of learners.

  3. A few racial incidents occurred between October and December 2017 at Framingham State University in Framingham MA. In one such incident, a flyer defaced with racially offensive writing was found under an African-American student’s door. The President of the University responded: "Framingham State University draws strength from its diversity. We are an institution where individuals of differing cultures, perspectives, and experiences are welcomed, respected, valued and supported. In response to recent events, we must not allow those with hate in their hearts to divide us. The best way to stand up to this type of vile behavior is by uniting as a community against it.”

  4. Flyers containing a racist slogan and anti-African-American imagery were found at the University of Texas at Austin. The flyers depict a racist caricature of a black man holding a knife and bear the words “Around blacks ... never relax.” The University was quick to condemn such hatred and pointed to their new Hate and Bias Policy that addresses such issues.

A good illustration of a proactive response to incidents of hatred occurred at the University of Hartford in West Hartford CT. In response to an incident racial harassment and bullying, Gregory Woodward, president of the University, stated that “the harsh reality is that racism in America is part of our reality. It is here on our campus and on campuses across the country. We are a reflection of the society at large. It is disturbing and inexcusable, and needs our constant attention and vigilance. We must all speak up, speak out, and be relentless in our pursuit of a more inclusive environment for our students. Acts of racism, bias, or other abusive behaviors will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form on this campus.

Biases and discrimination have no place in our culture yet they seem to be growing. Perhaps racial identity politics is the cause. I believe it’s driven by a divisive media that takes sides on one issue or the other and believers in the cause feel obliged to support their reference group. We all need to fight the urge to blame other groups for the problems we face and stop looking for scapegoats.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 2, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His Ethics Sage blog has been awarded one of the top 100 blogs (#46) in philosophy by Feedspot. Visit his website to sign up for his newsletter.

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