People Like Me and Racism


I went to the Ash Wednesday service at John XXIII which is the Catholic Center on campus. It was relatively full and it was interesting to look around and see people that I recognized, but whom I didn’t know shared my faith. Likewise, I heard a student say with some surprise, “Isn’t she the Associate Dean?” There is something that feels good about knowing there are people around you that share a cultural identity. It is suddenly a more familiar and safe environment. It is that familiarity and safety that I would hope we could make more available.

I’ve spent the majority of my adult life living in diverse cities and in diverse neighborhoods. Thirteen years in the DC metro area where I was happy to live on a street that boasted at least four languages, three years in Tucson, one year in San Antonio, and four years in St. Louis though while diverse was the 6th most segregated city in the country and once I got to my neighborhood you wouldn’t have known the city wasn’t 100% white and mostly Catholic.

When I came back to Tennessee my husband ask if I was sure. I’m Catholic and I have belonged to a Zen Center for years. Tennessee is the least Catholic state in the country and the nearest Zen Center is either in Nashville or Ashville. When I went looking for “community” I did it with greater intent than I did in St. Louis. I wanted a diverse community and a diverse church. I thought the university parish would be the most diverse and the most socially active, but I was wrong. I found that Holy Ghost was the most diverse parish in the city and relatively socially active so I ended up splitting my time between the two because I want to be part of the university community but also wanted diversity. I have found that I’m no longer that comfortable when everyone is like me and I never again want to live in a segregated community.

The racism, sexism, and homophobia was part of why I wanted to leave Tennessee in the early 1990s. The racist comments on the rock, the lack of acceptance of persons who are LGBTQ, and the recent blackface incident were shocking, but what I remembered. The difference between then and now is the response from the administration. In short order after each incident, the administration had responded with disapproval. That disapproval is being followed up with action. I am pleased that they are leading by example. They have held campus discussions and now are going to require cultural competency, inclusion, and bias training for all faculty, staff, and administrators beginning with the executive administration and it is to be developed and implemented immediately. While the administration and faculty didn’t paint the rock or record themselves wearing blackface they are saying change begins with me.

How has Tennessee changed since I left in 1991? People like me have looked at ourselves and said, where did these young people learn this behavior? And the answer may not be what I did, but what I didn’t do. I have had a fair amount of cultural competency and bias training and even included it in grants and program development, but I still notice my own bias. In St. Louis our program recognized a lack of diversity and in two years we went from 7% underrepresented minorities to 29% in our doctorate program. We didn’t change a single admission criterion, but we did recognize our own bias in the selection and ranking process. It was a painful two years for some of the faculty. They felt called out, but in reality, the change wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t recognize and own the bias and then act to implement change.

There will always be those that ask why they have to go to training when they aren’t racist, didn’t paint the rock, and have never taken part in offensive behavior. My answer is because our job isn’t just to teach or do research. It is to set the example of what it means to be a professional, a good citizen, and a person that can acknowledge their own bias and work to fix it. It is because they are young and they will identify with us. Whether we know it or not they see us.

Cultural competency training is needed and it needs to be ongoing at all universities. Many, if not most, nursing programs now have cultural competency and bias training is woven throughout the curriculum because we know the impact on health outcomes. The inclusion of cultural competency training for students beginning at orientation and global citizenship as part of our new curriculum will be beneficial for the community, the individual student, and for the patients for whom our students will provide care.

I don’t know what it feels like to always be in the minority or to have been the victim of racism. I’m all too familiar with sexism, but it frequently lacks the same level of hatred and hostility associated with racism, homophobia, and Islamaphobia though is likely equally harmful. The more people like me own our part in a culture that has allowed racism to exist the sooner all will feel welcome, safe, and respected.

I’m dedicated to a more diverse and welcoming campus. I’m also old enough to know that when we are silent about the evil that is racism, sexism, homophobia, or Islamaphobia we are complicit with that evil.

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