Earning my BA at the university of Mississippi (Ole Miss), was, for me, an eye-opening experience. I was a White male, adult learner, first-generation, low-income, disabled college student that had no idea what was next. I fumbled my first year, cashing out food stamps to buy alcohol and drugs, and doing anything but applying myself to the education that would eventually pull me out of my homophobic, racist, sexist world. During the first semester a resident advisor (RA) finally reached me—he had written me up twice and was about to turn me in to the central housing authorities. That was, unless I began meeting with him and his friends. He wasn’t White, nor were any of his “friends” who were other RA-types and hall directors that had a “diversity” lunch-meeting thing going on. As much as anything, he may have been fascinated by my worldview, and somehow realized I wasn’t really dangerous to anyone but myself. I thought I’d bore him, so I decided to try and stay in school by attending his meetings. Those ensuing discussions changed my life forever.
Fast forward a year, and I was an RA myself. I was living in an international residence hall, learning from people all over the world that were nothing like me in appearance, belief, or culture (on the surface). At this time, Ole Miss was fairly charged with a climate of “heritage versus hate” and I wound up being asked to serve as the Liaison for Minority (Read: African American) Student Recruiting. Students and residents in our hall realized that I was an advocate, and I realized that I could actually DO something to reduce some of the guilt that I was beginning to feel for my family’s and my past.
Another year gone by, my supervisor, an African American woman, was leaving, and she recommended me to take her place as resident hall director. I applied, was hired, and spent the next three years as a Champion for equity and inclusion on Ole Miss’ campus. Despite being “only an undergrad” I was older than many of the graduate/international students that lived in the hall of which I was in charge. I discovered that I enjoyed being an ally. It was immensely satisfying.
As a student, I was on a senate sub-committee which was instrumental in doing away with the Confederate Battle Flag as an “official” symbol of the University–something about which many family members and high-school classmates are still upset. My work as the aforementioned “Liaison” led me to ask, point-blank, why African American students were not considering graduate school at Ole Miss. There answers were illuminating, but basically could be condensed to “we feel threatened when a bunch of White students wave Rebel flags in our faces. Show us you care, get rid of the flag.” I brought data to both administrative and student groups as an Associated Body Senator, and people took notice. Ole Miss did care.
Later, as I earned a Master’s and then a Ph.D. at the Washington State University (WSU), I was appalled by the “isms” I saw outside the South. I’d been conditioned to believe that we Southerners held the Monopoly on hate. Unfortunately, eastern WA and northern ID had more than a few examples that proved otherwise. While Ole Miss had been much of a “Black-White” dichotomy in terms of fighting for equity, with international issues thrown in for good measure, WSU provided me the opportunity to branch out and learn how much allies are needed, and how much we are appreciated. My cognate as I earned the doctorate in Student Affairs was sociology, and much of my coursework was focused on identity, social injustice, and ways to right the wrongs. My extracurricular work was learning to be an effective ally.
As a graduate student I learned that microaggressions could be something seemingly innocuous as the White men doing all the talking, and never listening to the few women or other traditionally marginalized group members. As I studied and learned more about colonialism, my mind, my actions, could not remain unaffected. I dedicated my free time to standing up for many groups. As a good friend of mine once told me, “Vince, you White guys must join us in leading the change.”
Later, as a mid-level, and senior level administrator, coupled with teaching roles in the classroom, I had to critically re-examine everything I did and said. For example, growing up in the South, I was taught to hold the door for everyone, but particularly women. That seems polite enough, and for me, it was a staggering revelation to imagine that I was acting that way because I might have felt that women were the “weaker sex.” I still shake my head when I reflect on the habits that I, as an ally, were keeping without realizing how micro-demeaning they might have been. I had to consciously make the efforts to point out that “this theory of student development was written by a White guy studying White-guy-students” as we planned our strategies and tactics using theoretical models. I continuously searched for alternative voices from textbook standpoints. Thankfully, as our Student Affairs profession has matured, we are hearing and reading theorists from different backgrounds and with different voices.
In China, I had somewhat of “the other” experience, for the only time in my life up to that point. While I’ll never understand not being in the White majority in the U.S., the communities in which I worked, volunteering in small villages to help organize schools where there were none, teaching to marginalized ethnic groups in mainland China, I was not given the “red carpet treatment” one expects in the large eastern cities of China. I was physically attacked, twice. As a result of one of those incidents, I was unable to teach for nearly 10 days simply because I could not see, nor could I speak clearly. That gave me somewhat of an insight as to what my parents’ generation might have felt during the Civil Rights era; the local people were threatened by an outsider coming in and taking a job that (they felt) I should not have taken from a Chinese citizen. That’s probably how my father was conditioned to feel about Blacks in the 50s and 60s.
After returning from China, I was fortunate to work with Native American groups in Idaho and Montana and many Latina/Latino students in Idaho (which surprisingly had the fifth fastest growth in population of Latino/Latina groups in the U.S., during the time I lived there. The locals referred to that as the “Californication of Idaho” and as you might have already imagined, that wasn’t a positive generalization. Of all the lessons I’ve learned, the main one is that there is still much work to do in terms of inclusion and equity.
I recently was interviewed for a scholarly publication. The follow-up question upon which the researcher and I had a lengthy discussion was this: “Vince, you keep using the term ‘equity’ and I wonder how you contrast or compare that to ‘equality’?
I replied immediately: “I don’t believe equality is achievable in my lifetime. Equity consists of the policies we need to enact or have enacted, the procedures upon which we base practice, to ensure that we are aggressively pursuing the elusive concept of equality. And I mean aggressive, not assertive, and certainly not passive; this will always be a battle.
That first-year RA took a great risk with me and on me. I thanked him properly in the acknowledgment section of my dissertation, but I thank him daily by paying his kindness and passion forward.