Sunday, December 7, 2008

you've been to one, you've been to them all.....

This was my attitude about diversity training sessions.... That was until I heard Dr. Terrell Jones speak at our all staff training on Friday. His session was so powerful for me on a personal level that I needed few days to digest and think about how I wanted to write about it. So here goes...
Dr. Jones is the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State University. He is also an amazing lecturer. While watching his talk, I found myself missing school (who would've thunk?). He had a way of drawing in the audience and directing them in a comforting fashion to think about things that bring great discomfort, i.e. racial discomfort/cultural differences. His humor was light-hearted and really funny. There was some adjusting because Dr. Jones was born and raised in Pennsylvania and was very forthcoming about how this had influenced his own interpretation of race and culture. Having lived in that region, it is safe to say that that part of the country is more diverse than the Pacific Northwest when it comes to Black and White Americans, so naturally there are more opportunities to think about race and cultural identity. His jokes were direct and forward. No candy coating, just truthful observations of how stereotypes (not just racial, but cultural) can hurt people and separate us.

Once we were engaged in examining our own cultural identity and experiences, he urged us to do more than just think about ourselves, but to act on our observations. This was where his training session differentiated itself from previous sessions. I spent four long years in Residence life, helping students navigate their college experiences. I spent countless hours attending diversity sessions, but none of them talked about 'the next step'. Up to that point, I was taught to be aware and considerate of peoples experiences. I was taught to value differences and learn from them, learning wasn't interactive... it was supposed to happen on a personal level and this would in turn influence how I interacted with others. Hmm... In theory, I think it did. But it doesn't stick because if you aren't faced with issues, they become less familiar and there is less to relate to. 

What did this mean to me? As he spoke, I realized that I have had several valuable experiences with cultural differences. Some of my best friends in the world have different sexual orientations than myself and I have valued and learned from their adverse experiences. I lived in another country for a year; I went from feeling like a complete alien as I stepped off that plane in Japan to feeling even more overwhelmed when I returned to SEATAC airport where I was supposedly from? Talk about cultural confusion? 

He then discussed different levels of racial identity development as they relate to Black and White individuals. I found that as painful as it was to admit, I could identify with parts from several phases of the model. I guess I was in kind of in 'cruise control' mode. Yeah I have friends from all different backgrounds, but honestly my best Black friends still live on the East Coast and I DON'T see them anymore or have regular opportunities to talk about race and our society. 

Had I regressed because of this? My conclusion was yes. It was confirmed after attending a breakout session after Dr. Jones's talk. We were treated to lunch and when two open seats were available at a table, my coworker and I sat down. We were sitting with 4 other people, 3 of which were African American and 2 of them were women who I had spoken with several times before, but wasn't familiar with the programs they coordinated. So, as we were eating our sandwiches, I inquired about what programs they ran and told them I work with 'the oldies'. They looked at me with puzzled faces. I explained in further detail that I work with people who have dementia/Alzheimer's. One lady then told me that she was rebuilding a program that provides services to Portland area gang members who are trying to get away from gang activity. We talked more and with most non-profit mental health programs, I asked how they were funded and what kind of evidence based evaluation tools they used to prove they were making a difference. At first she thought I was talking about staff evaluation, since we were at a meeting for supervisors and then I elaborated that I was interested in how they were capturing change in their adolescent clients. It was awkward. I was having a heck of a time talking with this extremely smart, educated woman and I believed it was because our culture had led us to work with totally different populations so we didn't have much at all in common. It could have also been that I was ultra sensitive after the talk and noticing the smallest things. 

We continued to talk and it wasn't until I was stating that I had been originally assigned 3 coordinator positions and after 6 months just flat out told my director that there was NO WAY I could do ALL 3 Jobs. It was going to be difficult to run just the dementia program with only 24 hours a week!  One of the ladies proceeded to say that if she did that, she would be fired and she believed that being a woman and her race would be an influencing factors.......... I felt so many different things when she said this... I felt offended, shameful, speechless, skeptical and just insecure- all at the same time. There was nothing I could say really because I would never really know what it would be like to be her in my situation. At that moment I realized that I was really disconnected from her life and how her race influences her life here in a very White Portland, Oregon.

I left that afternoon feeling unsettled and disappointed in myself, only I didn't know why. Almost like I had turned my back on recognizing, and I mean really recognizing diversity. I had lost some connection that I once had.

I'm still contemplating that afternoon and have reached a conclusion: I need to make more of an effort.  Instead of assuming that race and culture continue to evolve in a positive way (I mean hello? Obama as president!), I need to remember that race relations improve because of the actions of those who advocate and tirelessly push others to confront this issue. While I feel connected to many other different race/culture issues, I need to work towards increasing my exposure to this issue. In January, I will be there to support the opening of one of my lunchmates program for ex-gang members. That is my action step towards changing my behavior, rather than just sitting here in my tiny apartment thinking about my cultural identity and how it is truly different from others. 

Whew.... This is exhausting to think about, so if you are still reading- Thank you. Thank you for finding this important enough to read more about. I have one more request. I have included some of the theory that explains phases or categories of white racial identity development. Please read through them and contemplate your own place in the model. As I stated previously, during Dr. Jones's talk I realized that I'm not where I want to be and it was uncomfortable to admit that. But, it is a starting point. Please read, think and share with those around you. 

Be the change...

Helm's White Racial Identity Development Model
Two Phases: Abandonment of Racism & Defining a Non-Racist Identity

1. Contact: People in this status are oblivious to racism, lack an understanding of racism, have minimal experiences with Black people, and may profess to be color-blind. Societal influence in perpetuating stereotypes and the superior/inferior dichotomy associated between Blacks and Whites are not noticed, but accepted unconsciously or consciously without critical thought or analysis. Racial and cultural differences are considered unimportant and these individuals seldom perceive themselves as "dominant" group members, or having biases and prejudices.

2. Disintegration: In this stage, the person becomes conflicted over unresolvable racial moral dilemmas that are frequently perceived as polar opposites: believing one is nonracist, yet not wanting one's son or daughter to marry a minority group member; believing that "all men are created equally," yet society treating Blacks as second class citizens; and not acknowledging that oppression exists while witnessing it (a la the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles). The person becomes increasingly conscious of his or her Whiteness and may experience dissonance and conflict between choosing between own-group loyalty and humanism.

3. Reintegration: Because of the tremendous influence that societal ideology exerts, initial resolution of dissonance often moves in the direction of the dominant ideology associated with race and one's own socioracial group identity. This stage may be characterized as a regression, for the tendency is to idealize one's socioracial group and to be intolerant of other minority groups. There is a firmer more conscious belief in White racial superiority and racial/ethnic minorities are blamed for their own problems.

4. Pseudo-Independence: A person is likely to move into this phase due to a painful or insightful encounter or event, which jars the person from Reintegration status. The person begins to attempt an understanding of racial, cultural, and sexual orientation differences and may reach out to interact with minority group members. The choice of minority individuals, however, is based on how "similar" they are to him or her, and the primary mechanism used to understand racial issues is intellectual and conceptual. An attempt to understand has not reached the experiential and affective domains. In other words, understanding Euro-American White privilege, the sociopolitical aspects of race, and issues of bias, prejudice, and discrimination tend to be more an intellectual exercise.

5. Immersion/Emersion: If the person is reinforced to continue a personal exploration of himself or herself as a racial being, questions become focused on what it means to be White. Helms states that the person searches for an understanding of the personal meaning of racism and the ways by which one benefits from White privilege. There is an increasing willingness to truly confront one's own biases, to redefine Whiteness, and to become more activistic in directly combating racism and oppression. This stage is marked with increasing experiential and affective understanding that were lacking in the previous status.

6. Autonomy: Increasing awareness of one's own Whiteness, reduced feelings of guilt, acceptance of one's own role in perpetuating racism, renewed determination to abandon White entitlement leads to an autonomy status. The person is knowledgeable about racial, ethnic and cultural differences, values the diversity, and is no longer fearful, intimidated, or uncomfortable with the experiential reality of race. Development of a nonracist white identity becomes increasingly strong.

Helms (1995) from Sue, et al. (1998). Multicultural Counseling Competencies: Individual and Organizational Development. Sage Productions. Thousand Oaks, CA.

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