PSEL: Conflict Resolution for the Long Term

The longest place I have lived in my entire life is State College, but I didn’t actually come here until my early 30s. Before that, the longest I ever lived in one place was in Boston…for grad school. Before that I lived in Ithaca, Indiana, Baltimore and different places in Maryland (usually 3-4 years tops).

Some people who move around a lot learn to fit in quickly, but I had the opposite reaction as an introvert. Other than family, I think I tended to regard school mates and teachers somewhat as passing strangers who would be departing sooner or later. While I tried to be as polite as possible, I think I felt like a difference of opinion was something that could be tolerated until I left town again.

A huge adjustment for me at Penn State was the realization that unless I wanted to uproot myself yet again, I would be dealing with the same set of people for a really, really long time. Even people who left my work unit would pop up somewhere else at Penn State or around town. For the most part, if I had a conflict, I could no longer assume that I could avoid it until we parted ways. I finally realized that I need to make an attempt to forge more permanent relationships, and part of that included working through conflicts in a more honest (and often humorous) way.

Old habits are hard to break though, so this is always a work in progress and I still make lots of errors. But I am happy when I am able to resolve a conflict in the long term. Not only am I learning more “leadership”, but I am feeling more connected to the community.

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PSEL: Projecting Leadership (in the Movies of course)

Working Girl

One of the most painful pieces of career advice I have received is that I that I needed to bump my wardrobe and makeup options if I wanted people to take me more seriously. I immediately flashed to the 80s romantic comedy Working Girl in which Staten Island secretary Tess Harper (Melanie Griffith) gets a new hair cut while proclaiming “[If] you wanna be taken seriously, you need serious hair.”

It turns out that she (and her super WASPy boss Katherine (Sigourney Weaver)) were probably right in a lot of ways. Although Tess begins as a secretary, she takes a lot of night courses to earn a business degree and even her creepy stock broker co-workers know she has good business finance instincts. The problem she has is persuading management that she can be a financial analyst. The 80s high hair is ultimately her undoing, and although it’s an unpleasant realization there is some merit to it. Would you pay someone high fees for stock advice unless they looked like a stock broker? Probably not.

Another piece of unpleasant but true wisdom from Katherine is that you need to build relations with people you might not ordinarily socialize with in your private life. After all “Today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s senior partner.” How much you want to maintain relations is up to you – I am not sure if I have the capability to share a bottle of champagne with two straws as Katherine coyly offers to a colleague.

Fortunately Working Girl isn’t all about looks but also about backing up your looks with substance like knowledge and ethics. It’s true that Tess’s updated looks do get her into the fabulous networking events she needs to attend, but ultimately she impresses others with her financial acumen and willingness to look anywhere for unique business opportunities (“I read a lot of things [like W Magazine]. You never know where the next big idea will come from.”) As successful as her unwitting mentor Katherine is at networking, she is eventually revealed to be a bit too untrustworthy, even for corporate America. Sometimes you need to be patient enough for Karma to work through its process.

Die Hard

While I was contemplating the need to contemplate another makeover, I remembered another 80s classic Die Hard which sneaks in some social commentary on blue vs. white collar workers along with some very satisfying thrills. During a fairly recent re-viewing sometime in the 2000s, I realized that the movie is a running commentary on how people in management often ignore information and recommendations from the blue collar class.

The obvious ones are NJ off-duty cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) and later beat copy Sgt. Powell both trying to convince police headquarters that a major incident is happening even though building security denies it. In fact, Sgt. Powell is reprimanded for not making the call through proper channels when his radio is cut off.

But a more telling incident happens later when the FBI finally intervene. FBI protocol dictates to cut off the power to the building and surrounding area. An electrical worker tries to explain that he doesn’t have to cut off power to the entire block, but can isolate to just the building. The lead agent completely ignores the advice and orders a power cut for the entire block. Of course, the electrical worker does it in the interest of continued employment.

While it is important to maintain authority and keep your clothes looking polished, it is also important to listen to what your colleagues or “supervisees” may be trying to tell you, even if they don’t happen to be in a suit and tie. More than once, I have had students comment that they can’t access an item online. It’s only when I check to “verify” that the item is there that I realize that the item is in fact missing. As a result, I’ve learned to appreciate students who approach me with problems…right after I get done rolling my eyes for the interruption.

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PSEL: Acknowledging “Ugly” Priorities

Conflicting Priorities

A concept from Tim Ballet’s presentation on ethics was the idea of conflicting values and priorities and how they complicate thinking about what the “ethical approach” to a problem might be. For instance allowing an employee time off to care for a sick pet is compassionate, but could be perceived as being unfair if other employees don’t know if they can do the same thing. How do you balance flexibility with consistency?

This is actually a major issue at Penn State which is so large and varied. On the one hand, you want policy to be consistent across the university. But there are so many variables that simplistic policy can be too rigid (which then leads to complicated and difficult-to-digest policies). It is true that there is so much variation at Penn State that you need to find ways to accommodate different situations, but sometimes exceptions can be so arbitrary and ad hoc that people feel that the policy isn’t really that important and can be ignored. Chaos has now ensued.

Understanding “Ugly” Priorities

This is hopefully a segue to my next point that different “ugly” priorities play a larger role in our work lives than we want to admit. For instance, there is no official Penn State value about saving money, but a lot of unsavory decisions can be made in order to save money. Similarly, convenience may motivate people do take a quick and dirty path that can lead to bad consequences later.

I don’t think most people at Penn State would want to admit they are motivated by being “cheap” or “lazy”, but in some ways these priorities can as meaningful like any other priority if they are properly acknowledged. For instance, Tim Ballet notes that saving taxpayer money isn’t a bad priority at all. It’s just important that other priorities aren’t short changed in order to save money.

Similarly, I think it’s important to provide convenient services to the Penn State community. While it’s important to follow policy, if following policy requires too many inconveniences, people may decide to skip it, particularly if consequences for not following it are not immediately obvious. Acknowledging that people do have priorities like convenience, economics as well as other priorities like career advancement, professional standards or ties to families and peers is important to being able to gathering the cooperation needed to complete one of your important major projects.

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Harriet Tubman: Changing Leadership Styles

Way back in April, Maurie Kelly talked about different leadership styles, not so we can pick the one we want, but to understand better what makes sense in a given context.

Dr. Kelly pointed out that a democratic leadership style in which team members participate in the decision making is a good model to emulate. Definitely better than an authoritarian model in which a leader makes a decision with no room for disagreement. This makes sense at Penn State where teams are generally made up of smart people with specialized skills. Learning to rely on the expertise on your team is beneficial to making better decisions in the long run, but putting the time into discussion will definitely longer than just making an authoritative decision.

But there are times when you need to adjust your leadership style for different situations. An interesting case is Harriet Tubman. She is most famously known for her missions to lead African Americans from slave holding areas in the South to areas where slavery had been made illegal. What’s not as well known is that she used guerilla style mission techniques to enact her escape missions, and later military missions in the Civil War.

One story is that if anyone on one of her escapes wanted to turn around, she would reportedly hold a gun to that person’s head and say “You’ll be free or die a slave.” She knew that anyone turning back could easily jeopardize everyone’s chances to escape the South. In this case, being authoritarian was a sensible model because she was the only expert and had to make quick decisions to ensure everyone’s safety. Dissension was literally life threatening.

It’s rare that authoritarian leadership would be needed at Penn State unless there was some sort of natural disaster (or perhaps a data disaster in IT). But Tubman was a wise enough leader to know this was the time to be authoritarian. She also used her analytic skills to understand best strategies (escape in the winter, on a Sat evening before the next notices were published on Monday morning).

Later in life, she worked to support both herself and in different humanitarian causes. She switched to a more “transformational” style of leadership hoping to inspire others with her speeches and example. Although she was owed a pension for her Civil War service, she did not immediately receive a pension leaving her in relative poverty for most of the remainder of life. Although she was not a formal leader, she was able to serve as an inspiration for both African Americans and the early Women’s movement. When asked if women should have the right to vote, she commented “I suffered enough to believe it.”

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Leadership Philosophy

As a leader, I will rely on the expertise of my team and colleagues but provide vision and direction to move us forward. I will strive to maintain calm in the face of chaos and communicate clearly in a sea of noise. Above all, I will be honest with my team and “customers” and treat them with integreity and respect. I will always seek to learn more about leadership needs, especially from my mistakes.

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PSEL: Be honest with yourself, but be kind too

In the PSEL program, we are being asked to assess ourselves, and in some ways, it’s one of the most challenging parts of the program. Examining my “dark side” is always a little scary. And honestly, who wants to admit in “public” that maybe our teamwork/EI skills are maybe not what they should be. And that maybe on some days, you are not really sure you can handle customer call without at least an internal scream. I know I don’t.

However, I do in fact need to acknowledge that I am an introvert and that some parts of my job are not in my “wheelhouse” and really I may not ever want them to be. Truthfully, I have always known this, but in the past I would berate myself for this, resulting in a state where I get even crankier than I already was. I may become a better communicator, but I will always be a snarky introvert who asks questions not everyone wants to hear. Still, someone needs to be brave enough to ask them sometimes.

A new truth I am learning is that while I have to honestly acknowledge my mistakes, I have to be kind to myself as well so I can get to the place where I can be more accepting of life and behave better. A simple example was that I was having some pain after a fall, and the pain was definitely affecting my mood. I saw the “ripple effect” and was annoyed with myself, but then added a vow to take some pills when I got home. I also made sure that I got to the doctor so she could help me on a long term basis. In fact, I have been feeling better so that I am looking forward to walking around campus instead of dreading it. I can say that my mood is a little better as well, especially since I can get out of my cubicle more often!

This isn’t a perfect solution. I still need to get better about opening up and apologizing when I’ve been grumpy. But I was also amazed at how supportive the PSEL group was when we shared our EI challenges. Dealing with Emotional Intelligence is definitely not fun, but it is worth it.

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PSEL: The Many Roles of Captain Mancuso

When I think about how leadership is taught, portrayals from fiction are probably very influential, for better or worse. An interesting case to me is Commander Mancuso from the submarine movie The Hunt for Red October. I think it’s a helpful example for Penn State because the U.S. Navy is a complex and hierarchical organization like Penn State, although probably more centralized. It also shows the importance of putting on different hats as needed. When you really analyze the movie, Commander Mancuso is rarely giving direct orders (except when the sub is in a crisis situation). Instead he usually acting as a mentor, PR speaker and diplomat.

For anyone not familiar with the movie, the plot is about a Soviet sub commander trying to defect with his top secret sub, the Red October. He can’t safely communicate with the U.S. so the Americans have to guess his intentions and help him covertly while evading other Soviet subs trying to catch or destroy the sub .Although this situation is technically fiction, the DVD extras mentioned that Mancuso’s character was based on an actual naval commander producers observed. They were impressed at how calm he was in contrast to a traditional “drill sergeant” approach usually associated with the military.

At the beginning of the movie Cmdr. Mancuso gets a report from his sonar technicial about unusual acoustic signals (it’s the sub in stealth mode). The technician can’t put his finger on it, but he asks if it should be investigated. At this state Mancuso is a mentor – his listens to the report and advises the sonar officer to follow up since the ship is in a lull. At this stage, Mancuso is acting like a mentor helping his team work the projects they are given independently. I think it’s interesting that Mancuso trusts the sonar tech’s intuition even though nothing concrete can be identified as a real issue yet.

Later in the movie, Mancuso is then ordered to leave his position and pick up a Navy consultant (one who knows more about the sub). Mancuso follows orders even though he know it will mean losing the trail and he explains the orders to his crew. In a large organization, a leader is also a broker between his team and other groups and people in the organization. Diplomacy is key. Manucuso does vent his frustration to the consultant though. Sometimes a leader has to protect his team from the wheels of bureaucracy.

Once the Russian sub is found, Mancuso takes a more decisive role giving orders as needed, but always remaining calm. However, he is always careful to get input from the Navy consultant since he has more information. In many cases, the consultant makes the plans based on his information, but Mancuso is able to contribute his expertise about the ship. Both respect each other’s ability enough to share in the the planning phases. Finally, when he does meet the defecting Russian captain and crew, Mancuso becomes a diplomat and has to know what can or cannot be promised.

Reviewing these notes, I see that leadership is not always about giving commands, but being able to provide an environment where experts can work together to accomplish a goal. Leaders need to interpret data, communicate goals and decisions, and quickly built trust in their team and between other teams.

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PSEL: Leading by Listening

Several incidents in recent months are making me realize that one of the challenges of leadership, particularly leading groups of motivated individuals, is knowing how to pull back and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute.

I’ve been in multiple rounds of group brainstorming and design activities recently (the kind where you build a tower made of spaghetti), and I notice that unless the moderators advise on some ground rules, the usual result is that idea first shouted out, or the one proposed by the socially dominant person in the hierarchy, is the only one developed. In fact the worst spaghetti tower designs are usually those done by all CEO teams.

The lesson we’re supposed to learn is to rapid prototype and work through multiple ideas, but I think it’s also learning to listen to and respect people’s expertise. Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking points out that a Harvard Business School (HBS) exercise has the same issues. In this case, the goal is to explain which items should be salvaged from a wreck in the wilderness. Again the most dominant voice usually “wins” even if a quieter group member actually has some experiene in the wilderness. Although group works is supposed to “leverage diverse voices”, in this case the most expert voice was lost.

One of my own challenges has been to learn to listen to others more carefully and also to create an atmosphere where people are willing to tell me what they really think. In the past, I’ve sometimes been an overlooked voice, so it’s ironic that I am not always a good listener when I have some authority. I have to confess that I often have preconceived notions of what’s right and it can be hard to suspend judgement and listen.

But the times I have been able to understand what the other person was saying have all led to much better outcomes. Sometimes my role as leader isn’t to talk to be create a place where everyone can talk.

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Book Review: The Storytelling Animal

About the Book

This book reviews the roles and uses people make of “narratives”, both the positives of using stories to teach cultural morals and negatives of people being deluded by their own stories and nightmares. I became interested in this topic because a lot of our knowledge is organized around different “stories” in ways we don’t always take into account as educators. The author of the book, Jonathan Gottschall, is also notable for being an English instructor working with Darwinian theory.

From a personal perspective, I have to say I agree with the idea of a universal storytelling instinct. How else could Joseph Cambpell have discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Like many instincts though, it can serve people well in the sense that stories help people bond over a shared experience (e.g. Downton Abbey, Star Wars, Gone With the Wind) and serve as an organizer of information. I personally can recite the wives of King Henry VIII because I have seen lots of Tudor movies. I can also tell you a little bit about the Declaration of Independence based on the musical 1776. On the other hand, stories can also present and crystalize misinformation like “We only use 10% of our brain” (not true). Educators often use stories instinctively in the form of anecdotes, but do we understand how narratives and learning work in a structured way?

ISBN and Chapter Info

Gottschall, Jonathan (1994, 2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human New York: Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). <br /?
ISBN 10: 0544002342

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1: The Witchery of Story
  2. Chapter 2: The Riddle of Fiction
  3. Chapter 3: Hell is Story Friendly
  4. Chapter 4: Night Story
  5. Chapter 5: The Mind is a Story Teller
  6. Chapter 6: The Moral of the Story
  7. Chapter 7: Ink People Change the World
  8. Chapter 8: Life Stories
  9. Chapter 9: The Future of Story

The Universality of Story

Not surprisingly, Gottschall discusses the universality of stories in human cultures in multiple medias. Stories began as an oral genre, but in the modern world they can be found in books, radio, movies and TV. They can even be found in role playing games and competition reality TV (e.g. WWF wrestling and The Bachelor). As we all know, there are lots of people trying to make money around the world providing narrative content for people to consume.

Gottschall also mentions that children like to make their own stories and adults can also make their own in the the forms of original stories or fan fiction type genres. What’s the evolutionary purpose of story? Gottschall discusses several theories but one he mentions is a connection to the mechanism of imagination. People do use scenario building as a way to play more mundane activities like food gathering/hunting or actual social events. Both are aided by trying to create a mental model of what people or animals are likely to need and do.

The Dark Side of Story

Interestingly, Gottschall spends a lot of time talking about the dark side of stories. One theme that emerges is that a lot of stories are actually about bad things that happen. Even if a story has a happy ending, there is typically some sort of bad situation that needs to be resolved. Gottschall presents some studies of children creating stories, and those too involve lots of bad events like kidnapping, murder, assault and theft.

In a similar vein, Gottschall presents research that most dreams are usually nightmares. Gottschall metions a model that one functions of narrative is to allow individuals to model different “dilemmas” and then possibly find solutions (or not). One offshoot of this theory are science fiction stories that explore potentials for modern technological developments. Mary Shelly questioned how far science should go in saving a life in Frankenstein much like robot stories question how artificial intelligence would impact our life in the future.

Fiction and Conspiracy Theories

Another potential dark aspect of stories is that people also use stories to build conspiracy theories. Gottschall comments that every person considers him/herself to be the hero of their own story (even if no one else does). Normally the realities of life check our impulses to be too “heroic”, but a mental illness can often result in delusions of paranoia or grandeur where all the world is full of villains and only the hero knows the secret mission.

Similarly, people may build a story to connect inexplicable events in a “coherent” narrative. As Gottschall notes though, the resulting narrative can often be wildly inaccurate and can be politically dangerous. One interesting example was a conspiracy theory in West Africa that health care workers were actually creating Ebola (while many in the U.S. felt Ebola was a plot controlled by President Obama). In case you are wondering if the “educated” middle class is immune, consider the damage of the conspiracy theory that vaccines can cause autism. In late 2014, the drop in vaccination rates led to a measles outbreak in California. This was caused by one scientist’s hoax that a lot of people’s “intuition” felt was true.

As a final step, Gottschall notes that sharing a common story can bring people together in a common cause, but again he warns of the dangers of a common story becoming a negative force. A positive example might be people who believe in the values of the American democracy and may celebrate key moments like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But the same story can also lead to prejudice against non-Americans (or not-yet-American immigrants). In the worst case scenario, Gottschall described how Hitler used a story with theatrical accompaniments to convince many Germans to follow his Nazi agenda. Scary stuff.

Fiction and Empathy

Returning to a more positive aspect, Gottschall notes that a benefit of reading others’ stories is that the reader can feel empathy for different people in situations they might not experience in real life. Some models suggest that stories can act as a social skills simulation zone. Etiquette lessons are often taught by showing what happens to heroes who follow the codes versus villains who break them. More importantly, a story can also show different points of view in a way that’s deeper than just presenting the information. Interestingly modern role playing games take that a step further by involving true social interaction within a fictional framework.

What’s an ID to Do?

Gottschall’s book is a good introductory narrative on narrative that raises a lot of interesting points. Ultimately though, I think it’s important to dig a little deeper into what this means for cognition and pedagogy. One aspect that I think Gottschall missed is how narrative is used to structure “data”, particularly historical data or scientific data.

As I mentioned earlier, I was initially intrigued by the notion of using narrative to help learners build meaning. I remember novelist Morgan Llewelyn commenting that she couldn’t understand why students found history boring because “it’s all sex and violence.” That is, instead of concentrating on memorizing dates, it is likely more important to focus on the story behind the dates. I also think that story can be a good introduction to a particular field of study…although it can’t end there. One skill set that many students must learn is how to use data to build a quasi-accurate narrative, but they also need to learn caution not to extrapolate too much from their limited data. This is very important for fields like archaeology or psychology.

I was also intrigued by the idea of linking story and empathy. I think one of the hardest learning objectives to teach are affective goals, but stories appear to be a way to open a window into the mind (and soul) of a student. In the past, educators have talked about using games and simulations for the same effect, but is this really a byproduct of re-enacting a narrative?

Finally, I do think Gottschall points about the dark side of story are very important for education. I think all educators can think of examples of how scientific facts become distorted by meme simplification (aren’t memes just a really short story?). Similarly, they can all think of inaccurate stories that lead to prejudice and incorrect beliefs. Understanding how and why these stories are built can help us build better narratives for our students.

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Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

About the Book

Obstensibly, this book is about “self-segregation” or the idea that many African American students will, in fact, sit and work together in a racially mixed environment. Ultimately though, it is an explanation of how African Americans experience the world which is still very much dominated by Whites. It also gives a framework to understand how the dynamics of a dominant vs. non-dominant groups play out, particularly for issues of race and ethnicity in the U.S.

ISBN and Chapter Info

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1997, 2003) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? 5th Edition New York: Basic Books/Perseus Book Group
ISBN 10: 0465083617

The table of contents of the book is:

  • Chapter 1: Defining Racism: Can we talk?
  • Chapter 2: The Complexity of Identity Who am I?
  • Chapter 3: The Early Years: Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?
  • Chapter 4: Identity Development in Adolescence: Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?
  • Chapter 5: Racial Identity in Adulthood: Still a work in progress
  • Chapter 6: The Development of White Identity: I’m not ethnic, I’m just normal
  • Chapter 7: White Identity and Affirmative Action: I’m in favor of affirmative action except when it comes to my jobs
  • Chapter 8: Critical Issues in Latino American Indian and Asian Pacific American Identity Development: There’s more than just Black and White you know
  • Chapter 9: Identity Development in Multiracial Families: But don’t the children suffer?
  • Chapter 10: Embracing a Cross Racial Dialogue: We were struggling for the words
  • Continuing the Conversation
  • Getting Started Resources for the Next Step
  • Reader Discussion Guide

The State College Environment (A Personal View)

One of the challenges of discussing race in a location like State College or central Pennsylvania is that while there is relatively little overt racism, the culture is still very much White (or Anglo) dominant and the result can seem hostile. There can also be lingering instances of bias or lack of understanding.

What this book does is help explain that while a person may never be overtly prejudiced, he or she can be very oblivious to the African-American perspective. It presents the experience of someone from a non-dominant culture in a way that explains that person’s frustration while not necessarily putting blame on a White person. It shows how the legacy of a racist past lingers, even when people are not aware of it. As Tatum points out, unless a White person sees how an African American navigates the world, the implicit bias does not seem apparent. I know I got more insights, and I had been aware of some issues for many years.

As an instructor, I think this is a timely reminder of what experiences a non-White student may have gone through and how it impacts their interaction in a Penn State classroom.

A Racist System

In the first part of the book, Tatum distinguishes individual prejudiced behaviors which most people call racist from a racist system which is structured to benefit a dominant group. In a racist system, a member of the dominant class can be neutral or even benign in terms of individual race relations, but still benefit from being in a racist system.

Although a lot of the mechanisms from the clearly racist Jim Crow apartheid system have been dismantled, Tatum explains how Whites still remain dominant and benefit from the system. For instance, clothes and cosmetics designed for paler skin tones clothes are very readily available, while a person with a different skin tone must search harder.

A more pernicious example is that a White stranded at a bus station late at night can generally expect assistance from a security guard or the police, but a person with a different look might be considered a criminal in the same context. In fact, many urban areas like Ferguson and Staten Island are dealing with the demographics of White police officers policing “crime-ridden” African American neighborhoods.

I would also add here that although the North never had the same kind of overtly discriminatory practices that the Jim Crow South did, there were other kinds of systematic policies to discriminate against African Americans. <or instance a Whites only preference for 1930’s era FHA loans meant that African Americans in northern cities had a very difficulty buying and maintaining a home except in relatively poor “ghettos”.

This kind of practice to led to racially segregated neighborhoods in Northern cities with hostile attitudes between groups.Similarly, African Americans may be charged higher interest rates, pay higher insurance rates or have less chance to get student loans based on “statistical data” (see Wikipedia Red lining).

Can African Americans be Racist?

Tatum answers this question by saying it depends on what you mean by “racist”. Tatum does acknowledge that African Americans and other non-Whites can have negative stereotypes about Whites or other ethnic groups, but feels that White domination means that African Americans cannot benefit in a racist system. That may be generally true for now, but as African Americans obtain more status and wealth, some may be able to build structures meant to benefit African Americans at a cost to other communities. Every group should consider that once a group becomes more successful, they will gain privileges which can be abused.

Levels of Privilege and Non-Privilege

On the other hand, Tatum points out that not all Whites necessarily feel their “White privilege”. Lower income Whites may feel some of the same injustices as African Americans. Women who are White often experience gender discrimination and non-Christians, including Jews, may suffer from discrimination or lack of institutional support for religious holidays or other occasions. Even “nerds” may feel unprivileged from a social point of view if they suffered bullying in school. As a linguist, I have to point out that, English speakers from all ethnicities will have access to more technology resources options at a price point than speakers of other languages. African Americans may enjoy some privileges not available to non-English speaking or non-Christian groups.

It’s Not a Competition

When discussing comparative privilege, I think it’s important to clarify that it shouldn’t be a competition of which ethnic group or community has suffered the most. It’s an unfortunate truth that many groups, particularly those who have emigrated to the U.S. and other save havens, have suffered from different types of oppression. Rather, I think the point is to empathize with experiences of other groups and try to build a bridge of understanding. I think Tatum would agree on this point.

The Affirmative Action Debate

An issue impacting higher education is the idea of affirmative action, or finding ways to assist under-represented groups, including African Americans, gain access to higher education. One issue that many agree on is that one needs to distinguish class from ethnicity. There are African American (and Latino) families who have a long tradition of being college educated. It is important that this group be represented in a university, but not be the ONLY representation of an ethnicity.

In terms of affirmative action, Tatum and others talk about the fact that any first generation college student will experience similar challenges in terms of financial support or cultural discordance. Many members of this group may suffer linguistic prejudice if they do not natively speak Standard English. In fact, using Standard English or following other cultural expectations of academia may feel like a betrayal of the home culture.

Tatum raises another issue that is not easy to address – the idea that Whites may feel that African Americans in any kind of affirmative action program are not as qualified as a White person would be and that they are getting a “free ride.” There is no easy answer for this issue, but I would say that no affirmative action program could work unless this bias is somehow addressed.

One issue facing some younger African Americans are instructors who misunderstand African American Vernacular English language and culture. A child commenting that “Fractions don’t make any sense” is more likely to be helped than one commenting that “Fractions don’t make no sense.” Similarly racial stereotypes may persuade teachers that a rowdy white child is smart but just needs a little discipline, while a rowdy black child could be seen as a criminal in training. Certainly, the type of open questioning of an instructor that might be supported in some suburban schools could be seen as “threatening” in other contexts.

What is “White”?: Rethinking Ethnic Identities for “Anglos”

An issue that Tatum discusses is that if a White lives in a mostly White environment, he or she may not feel any kind of ethnic identity at all (i.e. “I’m just white”). Nor may there be an understanding of how ethnicities may differ culturally. Even if there are non-Whites (or non Anglos) in a town, they may have felt the pressure to just assimilate completely to the dominant culture, at least in public. There could be the illusion that everyone has the same experience regardless of skin tone and can be treated as “the same”.

Although the idea of “not seeing color” seems fair to Whites, it can in fact be offensive to non-Whites because it can be perceived as lack of awareness. I believe it can also be harmful to Whites who could equate a generic White identity to a disconnection with their heritage. In contrast Tatum notes that Non-whites have often explored their heritage more in order to understand their place within the dominant culture.

Following up on this idea, I would advocate that Whites learn about their individual ethnic heritages as much as possible. Although White is the dominant race in America, most Whites are descended from ancestors fleeing some sort of persecution or impoverished circumstance. Indeed, many groups which are now mainstream, including Irish, Italians, many Slavic groups and different Jewish groups, experienced intense discrimination or poverty in this country. This can be a way to help empathize with current immigrants/non-dominant groups.

Having said that, there is the flip side that some Whites claim they don’t understand why African Americans can’t make the same transition that their ancestors did. Unfortunately, skin tone continues to be a huge factor in a perception of inferiority in this country and, sadly, elsewhere.

A Little Beyond Black and White

Just as not all Whites have the same ethnic background, not all African Americans (or Blacks), Asians, and Latin Americans have the same ethnic background. A person with black skin could be an African American, Haitian American, from a Spanish speaking country or from an African family. These groups have different cultures and different experiences in America. The same is true from Asian (Chinese? Korean? Vietnamese?) and Latin Americans (Mexican> Puerto Rican? Dominican?).

I think the ultimate challenge is overcoming the fear of discussing ethnic differences in post-racial America. Non-whites (and many Whites) want people to know their heritage, but many Whites have felt that it can be a difficult question to ask politely. That’s a shame really because the stories are actually very interesting when told correctly. Just ask anyone who has watched the unexpurgated Finding Your Roots stories.

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