Dr. Allen Thomas joins J.S. Stansel and Joel Goodman to talk about what true diversity and inclusion can look like in higher education marketing. In this episode, we talk about the balance between authenticity and aspirational marketing when it comes to inclusivity.
Transcript for Authentically Marketing Inclusivity in Higher Ed
Welcome to Thought Feeder. My name is Jon-Stephen Stansel and with me as always is Joel Goodman. And today joining us on the podcast we have Dr. Allen Thomas. Dr. Thomas is the academic director of the HPaW@Baridon Residential College at the University of Central Arkansas, and holds a doctor of philosophy in counseling psychology.
He’s passionate about many things, including comics, video games, mental health, and diversity and multiculturalism. And he rolls an elf warlock in our regular game of D and D that I’ve been playing remotely with him. most recently, Dr. Thomas has been named a champion of pride by the advocate. So, welcome to the show, Allen.
Hi, glad to be here.
Excellent. And I don’t think a lot of guests are maybe familiar with your work. So can you talk a little bit about what you do at UCA and kind of what your day to day looks like?
Yeah. So my day-to-day is actually really flexible. So adapting it to COVID times was not as hard as you might’ve expected. The general layout of my job is to teach and to facilitate programs for one of our residential colleges. There are six communities, one for commuters, and then five for typically first time students, coming into UCA.
So we provide a structured program that has a curriculum connected to classes in connection to each of our academic colleges. so HPaWs is the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences. Biz is College of Business, STARS and EDGE are weird because we have a change in colleges. So next year STARS will be housing, technically two programs under the CAUSE umbrella, which is our newest academic college.
And then of course STEM is, College of Natural Science and Mathematics. So we have a set of classes that are connected to our lower division core, like general psychology, which is typically what I teach for HPaW, a lot of chem, bio, literature, music, and theater appreciation. And so depending on what program you go into, you’ll have a curriculum, you know, connected to your college.
We also do programs outside of that in our residence halls, to get students connected to their curriculum in a different way, besides just, you know, going to class. So some of my favorite things to do are our ping pong tournament, which we usually bring in our Nutrition class, Anatomy and Physiology.
And of course, it’s a ping pong tournament. It’s a way to build community but build in some implicit lessons or some implicit co-curricular programming. I also do video game demo day, which is again, something that’s near and dear to my heart. You know, we spend an entire day in the lobby playing video games, and usually, I try to schedule that where my classes in the middle of it. So whoever’s there not only get to play video games and figure out how that connects to health and wellness, but also, you know, I do a lecture on video games and psychology at least one every semester. And that’s.
Usually when I try to schedule it. So everyone is able to see it, not just my class. that’s kind of it in a nutshell, we do a whole, whole lot. And so, you know, I’m not in the office from 8:00 to 4:30, I’m typically up and moving around, going to meetings, getting supplies, things like that. And so my day it can actually look really, really calm or it can look really, really hectic. It’s just a toss-up.
Sometimes of course, now with this upcoming semester, there’s probably going to be some change to that. but you know, there’s, there’s not always an easy way to lock me down, which is why my cell phone number is on my business cards, because that is probably the best way to contact me.
Yeah, we definitely know about kind of working all hours of the day. So, well, one of the reasons we brought you on today and to talk with you is some about your, your passion involving mental health, diversity, multiculturalism, and all of those things and how that can apply to marketing in higher ed.
And I know we’ve had some discussions one-on-one about this and when I asked you to go on the show, you told me you had one condition and that was that we’d let you go ham. And we’re definitely going to do that a little bit. So, one topic we really want to cover today is last week kind of in the news and, and, and the university marketing sphere is a viral tweet that that was, was put out by a Twitter user whose handle is @onphileek. It took me a second to, get the, the joke in the name, but I, I get @onphileek. He tweeted, if your university has ever used you for diversity pics, you deserve free tuition.
And this tweet just took off, over 45,000 retweets, 340,000 likes and over a thousand replies from students sharing examples of how their photos were used to display diversity for their university’s marketing in, in marketing materials from the website to sides of buses, to, you know, brochures and everything in between. and there there’s a lot to talk about on this one. so first of all what are your overall thoughts on this?
I’ll bring this back a little bit to when you first asked me to be on the podcast, you mentioned a viral tweet and I was like, well, all right. So I figured it would be #BlackAtUCA, which is something that had come up recently. I thought it would be that, but, Nope. so when I saw this, I was like, yeah, that makes sense.
That tracks cause. Oh, wow. this is where I could start talking a whole bunch. So you might have to stop me at some point,
Go go, go, go roll with it, Allen, that’s why we got you here.
Oh my gosh. This is a huge conversation because there’s so many different levels. also why I stopped using the word diversity when it comes to matters of inclusion and justice. Diversity is easy. And honestly, diversity is a word that white people cling to, to feel like they, they are progressive in doing something Oh, we’re diverse or, Oh, we’re looking for diversity.
It’s like, I bet you, there’s a couple of ways that I know that you’re not. And here’s how, so for one, when we have a marketing campaign or not a marketing campaign in a, a hashtag or a tweet that says, you know, you know, if you’ve been used for diversity pictures for a university, you deserve free tuition, for one everyone does.
But two, that’s absolutely true because those visible, those superficial metrics that are right now, what we’re using to dictate whether or not we’re actually working toward equity and justice. and those are two very different things compared to equality and diversity. They’re all important. But when we settle on one, similar to like settling on just representation of marginalized people in media, rather than the inclusion of them, not just in the writing room, but also in the execution of the media, what we start to find is that we keep going for the easy stuff, and that makes sense, but it also points us to a very particular conundrum. So in these discussions about diversity and inclusion, again, there’s, there’s a lot of really easy stuff that’s being sent out. And there’s a lot of platitudes that are being shared, but the reality is how many of those are leading to material outcomes for actual people, for marginalized people?
And that’s where a picture gets a little bit dubious because, when, when we look at higher education and you know, all the different levels that exist there and the different ways that we can, you know, better bring in and better include marginalized folks, marketing and pictures is actually one way to do that.
Like, you know, for a university like UCA and, you know, a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), where you are likely to see white people, basically everywhere you go, that has a huge impact on incoming students of color in particular, on, you know, how welcome they feel at the university. And that’s something I’ve heard directly from students.
For me, it wasn’t quite something I experienced, but that’s also because, you know, going through school, I grew up primarily around white folks and especially getting into AP classes where you start to see more of that divide in high school. Of course, I didn’t know what that meant then. Like I knew it, but I didn’t really understand the gravity of something like that until I got a lot older.
And so, you know, my relationship there with white folks was being more comfortable around them, but also recognizing where that could fall short. And the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve understood, you know, social justice and equity and justice work the more I started to realize where things start to fall short.
So all that to say, you know, expanding our marketing, I think is a really excellent idea. However, that’s where, often, people stop. So the stuff that you see, the marketing materials, any kind of promo stuff, you do need to have diverse representation there. But that’s not the be-all, end-all because just because you have a picture of in this case that someone who’s assumably Asian or part of the Asian diaspora, that’s wonderful, but does that mean that Asian folks are treated well on that campus once they arrive there? We know that through hashtags, like #BlackAtUCA, that is not the truth.
So essentially we, we keep making these half measures or these half steps because folks think that they’re doing something good, but they don’t realize how entrenched a lot of these lessons are and how much work they have to do.
And so that brings me back to a common conundrum I keep finding. When we’re talking about a work of justice, marginalized, people have always been talking about their issues. That’s been something that’s existed throughout history because when you experience a grievance, there’s a high likelihood you’re going to say something about it. Unless you come from a culture where that has been, you know, tamped down, or literally beaten out, like in the case of African slaves, developing into, you know, who we recognize as black Americans today, you know, there were still slave revolts and uprisings throughout history.
However, there was also a large system around them where after probably a couple of generations, the black folks who were here through enslavement, they were property. And so what they knew was being used as property, even though they were people. And this is, this is as dire as, And I had never learned this before until very recently, you know, many slaves were denied a name, which meant that if they were denied a name, you could do virtually anything to them. You could do the worst things to them because they didn’t even have a name. And that’s something that, you know, we, we give people names after they’re born and that’s something that we hold onto very dearly. But I never realized how much not having a name could be used as a weapon against you. And so when you have a system set up like that, yeah, it makes sense that people may not speak up or may not say anything.
But people have still been, saying that, you know, this system is bad, we shouldn’t be treated as a slave, as racism is bad, which is such a, like a super low bar.
What that comes back to is the fact that white people have privilege and power, if we’re talking about racial dynamics. They’re the ones who need to fix the system. White folks are also woefully unequipped to do so. So who do you rely on, the people who don’t have power, who have been telling the truth all this time, but have had significant barriers placed in front of them to change systems?
Or do you rely on a group of folks who has the power, has like no knowledge and no, no way or very little understanding of how to use it? It’s kinda like, Oh, there’s a really good example recently. Oh, let’s take the mud mask episode of the Golden Girls.
So, you know, streaming media has been taking off episodes with blackface and they took off an episode of Golden Girls that had, you know, them in a mud mask and it was brown and they’re like, we’re taking this off cause it’s offensive. And it’s like, okay, that’s, that’s exactly how we know all you’re talking about diversity and inclusion is bunk because you didn’t actually ask Black folks what they thought. Like, we know what a face mask looks like. We also know what blackface looks like, even if it’s done really, really poorly. So to do this, because you thought you were doing the right thing, it’s like, Oh, we’re taking off all these other examples of blackface. Well, this isn’t blackface.
So someone made a choice, probably not including the vulnerable and the affected people in the room and said, let’s do this. And they thought they were actually being progressive when the reality is, no, that wasn’t it at all. So these diversity pictures or diverse people in marketing that, that does a little bit, and it is actually really important, but if it’s not backed up by other institutional work on various levels, it really doesn’t mean much of anything.
It actually means taking marginalized people and putting them into a situation where they’re more likely to be victimized or hurt in some way, even though you had a picture of people who assumably were a part of their culture or part of their diaspora.
Yeah. And that kind of leads to the question too. Like where are they not listening to those voices? Or, were those voices, even in the room? I think a lot of, some of these issues could be resolved with more inclusion in marketing departments or dare I say it, actual university leadership roles, w which, you know, is drastically not diverse.
It’s a systemic problem, not just in higher ed, it’s a systemic problem in every industry. And I mean, Allen, going back to what you were saying, I mean, there’s been so much talk on Twitter this week around that, that streaming media thing of, and, and not, not just around race relations, I think around, you know, LGBTQIA plus sorts of things where it’s you know, like people are just like ripping whole shows, whole episodes of TV shows out, or, you know, they’re, they’re in some way censoring and part of it is there’s a, there’s a product of the time and there’s important discourse to be had around those media artifacts, around what is wrong with them to educate.
But then on the whole other side of it, it’s like, it’s what you were saying. It’s, you know, did you actually have the people that would possibly be offended by it or, or possibly, have something against it in the room when you were deciding to take it down? Or was it really just a hollow marketing PR sort of extension of, you know, we need to make our company look good. We need to make our university look good. But it’s not backed up by any of the actual action that needs to go into it.
Well, there’s, there’s a couple of media examples that kind of hit on that. So take Family Guy, abhorrent treatment of trans folks, and they even did an episode where they tried to get it right and educate people about trans people. And it still ended up being incredibly offensive.
But, you know, Family Guy is treated as satire, but the reality is they do a lot of punching down. They do a lot of really harmful things, which is ironic because American Dad does a way better job of punching up and it’s by McFarlane too. So I don’t know where that comes from. but yeah, I think the other part, so, apparently, an episode of Community was pulled and I had no idea and it’s one of my favorite episodes, the D and D episode, which is like. Talk about a great episode to encapsulate like group therapy, healing processing your own trauma, but there is a scene with blackface.
But here’s the thing. For one, I love Community. I watched it, early on wait, it was either early pandemic or last year. Time is…
But I watched it. I was like, Oh, this is great. And so to hear that and I was like, there was blackface in that episode? And maybe I would have remembered it if I went back and watched it, but I was like, Oh no, what I remember from that is a really great emotional experience. But it’s marred by this experience of blackface. And apparently, you know, it’s treated as a situation where no, this is clearly wrong. And so that’s that again, adds complexity because just because blackface shows up, does that mean that it’s an episode that is not contributing toward a positive or a progressive racial message? Like, they can show blackface in an episode and challenge it appropriately, and still have done blackface. It’s very different than doing it, just to do it or do it first shocks or anything like that.
So again, who is in the room, who’s making these choices, and who’s actually evaluating this. Who has the tools to evaluate something for cultural sensitivity? I’m gonna be honest and say like, I’m sitting, I’m sitting here on this podcast as a black gay dude, the black gay dude in this instance and I’m literally telling you, no. Just because I have those two experiences doesn’t mean I’m automatically qualified to do a sensitivity read. Not to mention, if you ever look at like a sensitivity like, um, like an, a resource or a network of sensitivity readers, they all mention specifically what they would be useful for.
So some people it’s ability or disability, some people, and even that it could be mobility issues versus being deaf versus having ADHD. Like it’s still disability, but you need different skills or different information to be a sensitivity reader for each of those three different experiences.
Yeah, that’s a bit of a callback to a previous guest, Erika Boltz, when we were talking about accessibility. And one thing she said is, you know, if you ha hire somebody, you know, and reach out to someone in the disabled community to review your accessibility, you need to pay them for that. You know, you can’t just say, Oh, Hey, how does this work on a screen reader for you? Oh, thanks. Thanks for your help. I’ll see you later, you know, maybe buy you coffee.
And I, I think that also kind of leads to this broader conversation about this viral tweet with how we compensate students for their modeling work, which, I mean, we take their picture and we think, Oh, they’re going to be happy because we put them in the magazine or on their face on a brochure.
But in reality, that’s work that in any other industry, would get paid for, and then also how the universities select those models. I know at UCA, one thing we do is we send out an entire campus-wide email that says, Hey, if you want to be included in marketing materials, you know, fill out this form and, we’ll be in contact with you to get students and faculty and staff to, photoshoots.
But that means our pool becomes the type of people who are going to fill out that form or, have that sort of confidence to do it. And we ended up with like these, and this was mentioned in that tweet. It’s some students who said they used my photo or several photos of me throughout this marketing campaign, because, you know, granted, you know, some people are, you know, are really good in front of a camera and others are not, that’s just a fact of marketing.
So, you know, it also kind of leads to another point that that was on that thread and that was raised and said, that often university marketing is very misleading about the actual makeup of the campus. We see this kind of almost plucked, you know, for lack of a better term, what has been used of diversity shots. So where, you know, it’s, I don’t know, you, you have a black student, a white student, an Asian student, you know, a student in a wheelchair, all together.
We’ve all seen that photo.
Right. We’ve all seen that photo and it doesn’t, it doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s actually happening on our campus or even the makeup of our campus. So, how do you think this affects students, the student community when they find out that either A) they’ve been kind of tokenized or B) the admitted student who gets on campus and goes, Hey, this is not the reality of what I saw in the brochure.
I think that calls into question a lot of different things, and I’m going to try my best, not to speak outside of my lane. So like, like I said, having, pictures that represent the diversity of a campus is still really important, but you’re right. Like when, when they’re orchestrated there’s a sense of fiction to that. Like it doesn’t square with what you would actually see. And so for those students, there’s, I don’t know, it’s almost like a labor concern because there is something cool about being used for promotional material. And I guess if we had a society where people were paid more, and better wages and where, you know, that compensation did exist in more places like student-athletes, they should be getting paid in college. And the fact that they’re primarily students of color should raise alarms for people that they’re not getting paid.
And so there’s, there are some aspects where yeah, it is cool to be used in a promo shot and not want or need any compensation or be offered any. But in other cases, when you think about how that’s part of a system, then I agree with you. Like, we’re not compensating them and there’s a problem there.
And then for the student coming, I mean, It’s, it’s already a culture shock, getting used to college and for, Conway or for UCA, most of our students are from rural areas. And so that’s a major shock to them. But if you’re experiencing that shock and you’re marginalized and you were kind of sold a lie, that’s really tough.
And so, you know, one of the ways this that’s actually coming up recently is, I’m sure you’re familiar J.S., but we’re doing campus connections. So all these online meetings from different departments on campus with upcoming students, because it’s not safe to have in-person orientation or meetings right now. so I’m helping to coordinate the one for LGBTQ students, which is basically co-sponsored by PRISM. I mention that because you know, I’m also the advisor for PRISM, which is UCA’s LGBTQ group. And when I work with them, I want everything to be student-led and student-driven. And so if someone approaches me about, Hey, we want PRISM to get involved in this, I’m happy to be involved as an individual. I do not co-sponsor to that or say that it’s sponsored by PRISM unless I get word from the execs that they would like to do so. That’s something that’s very important to me.
And so, we have that meeting coming up and our first one is Thursday. And one of the things that’s on my mind is when I’m talking with students, I want them to come here. Like I want there to be more trans and queer students at UCA, because, for lack of a better term, diversity or including different communities is how we really thrive. Like we get so much from that. But I also don’t want to lie to them and say that it’s a completely queer-, trans-affirming campus.
And so I’m trying to figure out how do I do that? Because what I have noticed about marketing, or honestly, sometimes about UCA. Is the fact that we’re really averse to telling the truth, sometimes, if it means someone’s feelings are going to get hurt or it makes us look bad. And you might think that that’s the human condition, that we’re all like that, but I’ve seen it as part of the culture too often and too much to not view it as a problem.
So we have this stance of really being our best selves and looking like our best selves, but not wanting to own up to the truth behind a lot of that. And we can see that through hashtags, like #BlackAtUCA or through the sign issue last year, which I can not say this enough, it was a sign! There literally should not have had to be an open forum about a sign, but because there was, that was our indication that there are larger cultural issues afoot that are affecting how LGBTQ folks feel on campus.
Okay, can we get, give the backstory here for the listeners who may not be familiar with it? Let me just give a brief synopsis.
Yeah, you go ahead.
There was a, a physical marquee outside of our library with, you know, interchangeable letters that usually said witty things or were somewhat witty, you know, “finals are coming, brace yourself” sort of stuff.
But some were really funny and I just can’t think of any others but in some very poignant. You know, they would have a message for, Black history month in February. And for pride month, last year, they had a quotation from Lady Gaga that says, “Being gay is like glitter, it does not go away.”
The university, received a few complaints, from some, some high ranking folks and, um, the sign was removed, and there was much, I would say justified protest. Yeah. That’s the nutshell story.
Thank you J.S. It was literally just a sign. Like it should not have caused that much of a problem, even, even with it being taken down. However, because of how it was handled and because of the larger cultural and systemic issues that were affecting trans and queer folks, that’s why it became a kerfluffle.
So it’s like, we can’t say that we support diversity and basically routinely keep doing things to diminish that. But you know how this typically pops up in higher education is fewer people of color who get offered tenure-track positions or who are tenure track. And even if they are, it’s not just the expectation and the pressure to do research for the department. It’s also the expectation to serve on diversity committees. And again, that happens here too. Or, doing some implicit service with students of color because when they see you and you look like them, they have a higher likelihood of coming to you to talk about things.
I mean, that’s just, that’s how we work as humans a lot of the time. And so they’re not just doing stuff on the administrative or university or scholarly end, they’re also doing stuff for individual students or groups of students.
So it’s like, it’s approaching burnout as a faculty member of color, is very, very easy. And then to see stuff like that, and then have messages about Black Lives Matter or about Pride, I mean, part of that is helpful, but part of it doesn’t square with the reality of what’s happening. But part of the sad thing there too, is that it’s not just a systemic or an administrative thing, we also deal with faculty and staff members who sometimes are vocal about opposing things like Black Lives Matter or, a library sign, or sending out a message to students about an event, regarding LGBTQ folks that they can attend. We have folks like that on campus. So it ends up being a really, really huge problem. Uh, or maybe it just always is.
And what we often find is that universities, don’t always back up what they say or the statements that they release and the people who feel that, and who feel that the most are the vulnerable people, the people from marginalized communities affected. But again, it goes back to that earlier conundrum. Do we have people in higher administration who were equipped to handle these issues when they arise in a sensitive and competent, inclusive, and in a format that is informed by justice? Or are they here to protect the university?
Which, it’s striking how often I see this, but in organizations like boards or universities, any system, the law, HR, they’re designed to support the system. They’re designed to support the organization. They’re not designed to support actual people. So I see this time and time again. The more upper administration or the more people in power are in favor of protecting the institution, typically the less likely they are to enact initiatives that actually support people affected.
Right. And I think this comes out to, you know, all universities right now, where we’re seeing several different approaches to how universities handle some of these issues publicly. And I think they’re there, they’re kind of there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. And you’ve brought up like the black at UCA hashtag in their university.
This has been happening at several universities across the country from there’s Black At Mizzou. Uh, there was a Black At University of Arkansas and just across the nation where
All those Instagram accounts, too, popping
Right. Students using that hashtag to talk about instances of where they’ve experienced racism on their campuses. And I’ve been paying very close attention to how various universities are responding.
I think there’s a mentality to not acknowledge that there is a problem and kind of play ostrich and bury your head in the sand and just hope it goes away. You know? my take on it, too, is that if it’s happening on social, we need to respond to it on social. my feeling is, well, the administration says, Oh, students are talking about this on Twitter, we need to have a campus forum and host it. And like, well, the forum is happening on Twitter. We chose not to attend. Right? We need to take the conversation to where they are. while other universities are kind of facing it head-on and admitting that they have a problem and there’s really, I don’t know if they’re, I don’t think there’s a way for universities to do this without really facing some of their own faults and admitting it.
And I think that’s kind of the first step.
I have a question within all of this and I think Allen probably has some thoughts on it. A lot of times the response from the university is, “we’re an academic institution. We’re about conversation and hard dialogue and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And so they kind of try to distance themselves from, well, they’re trying to make themselves look like they are participating in the conversation without having to actually commit to anything. And so within that, they give a pass for speech from faculty, for speech, from students that in any other context would be considered hate speech. that would be discriminatory action towards other people and things that wouldn’t be tolerated.
And I don’t, I don’t know how that gets addressed within academia, because that’s that that’s, to me, that’s part of the systemic issue, but I also don’t. I understand what they’re saying there, but I think it’s the approach to maintaining that that’s problematic. Um, so yeah, I don’t know what, how, how would we deal with something like that?
This is where I feel I have to be incredibly honest. That is not easy. so yeah, I’m sitting here talking to all about social justice, talking about equity and all the places where universities can go wrong, but here’s the other part. I’m human and I have a pretty significant level of anxiety.
It’s not easy to do this stuff all the time. so that’s, the first thing it’s difficult and it’s not always easy to say this. And so I feel, I feel comfortable enough to bring this up with y’all and have it, have it expressed to the listeners in the appropriate format.
But in talks about any kind of form of justice, basically what we’re having to do is reprogram. Everyone is reprogramming. If Black folks can pick up a sense of anti-blackness, which is usually seen through like respectability politics or, you know, I’m trying to think of non-gendered examples. Candice Owens is the one who comes to mind.
Oh, Van Jones! He’s a really great example recently. not all black folks or. Basically the saying goes, “not all skin folk are kinfolk.” And Angela Davis even said recently, I don’t want to be unified with all Black folks. And I vehemently support that.
I mean, because there are black folks who have problematic views. And to have views that aren’t working towards this, it’s like if someone is showing up to a protest for George Floyd, but they’re vehemently homophobic, I don’t want to be unified with them. The other part of that though, is that as we’re having these discussions, white folks are having to deprogram too. And so white folks actually do need a space to unpack and be like, well, I thought this was right, or I thought this was appropriate and I turned it or it turned out it wasn’t, or I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing and being the villain, which admittedly is not really the thing to focus on. But from an emotional standpoint, it is valid because it’s an emotional experience that someone’s having.
However, when I say that white folks need those spaces to process, I would argue that it doesn’t need to involve people of color at all, especially not as a facilitator because that just sets up a really terrible paradigm.
But that’s actually kind of what happens in these larger campus discussions because someone’s going to say, well, I feel like I can’t say XYZ and it’s like, well, actually you can, like, I tell my students all the time, we’re going to talk about racism and misogyny and trans-antagonism and ableism. And when we had those discussions, I want you to check-in and if you feel angry or upset, like, process that feeling, you can talk it out with me if you want to, if you feel comfortable, but process that feeling.
That’s what you need to do. Don’t get defensive. Work on that. But people aren’t always ready to do that, or they don’t always understand how to do that. and then we end up creating these environments where, very quickly — and I can, I watch this happen in real-time, it’s funny and sad at the same time — it starts to devolve into something that’s not actually about the discussion at all and definitely not about race. Because maybe the people of color feel like they need to protect the feelings of the white folks involved. the white folks start either projecting their feelings or start to kind of word-vomit and process out loud, not considering the emotional labor on the people of color involved.
And so it, it very quickly can stop being a productive conversation. And a lot of that has to do with who’s leading the discussion. Cause this isn’t something that I say very openly, but I hate the word civility in these conversations.
Look, if you say something racist to me, and I cuss you out, you just said something racist to me. It didn’t be a conversation of me calling you a, you know, trying to think of something that’s not, you know, informed by marginalization. calling you someone and with a level of intelligence unbefitting of even our president, like. I recognize what that sounds like but sometimes when you come incorrect, you get responses that are warranted.
But Black folks being anything but cordial, especially for Black women, we’re not allowed to do that. We don’t have the space to challenge folks without people getting their feelings upset. But what I’ve been saying for years is we cannot have conversations about justice if we’re focused on hurt fee-fees, because I mean. We just can’t do it because we’re not getting anywhere, we’re focusing on the wrong thing.
So all that to say in those conversations, they can be really helpful, but I agree with J.S. that, yeah in the medium that people are talking to you, you know, respond to them that way. And don’t pretend a campus conversation is going to solve everything. Cause the other thing is kind of like with emotional processing, when you don’t handle an issue, the longer you go without handling it when you start to, you’re not just dealing with the immediacy of it, you’re dealing with a long history.
Like when I was doing counseling, I would ask students or I would ask my clients, no, you’re super anxious right now, you’ve been anxious for about three years. If you were to let’s say, graduate, cause that’s a big stressor. If you were to graduate, do you think your anxiety would still be there? Or how do you think you would feel?
They’re like, well, I think I might not have any anxiety whatsoever. I’m like, okay, so let’s talk about the brain and neuroscience. Again, not my field, but the longer you experience something, your brain is going to correspond to that. And so when you stop experiencing it, your brain doesn’t just automatically jump. I would actually argue that that would cause a level of shock that we’re not comfortable with. But your brain is still in anxiety mode, even though stressors aren’t there. So what does your brain do? It starts looking for things to respond to in anxiety mode.
So all that to say, We can’t just expect to have an hour-long discussion and have that fixed racial issues for our culture, because it was a culture long before this discussion and what, what keeps happening, and seriously like clockwork, it starts to reveal that, Oh, wait, this is a systemic issue.
This is way bigger than what we set out to do. And so we need to develop a plan to actually handle it. Because we’re realizing that it’s not just inviting more faculty of color and getting more students of color to the university. It’s also, well, what are we teaching? How are we teaching? Who are the people that we’re teaching about?
What are the visual examples that we use in class? how do we talk to people? Who do we give space to talk in class? Are we interrupting the women and the people of color in particular? Are we allowing narratives for trans and queer folks? Do we have an accessible classroom? Do we get rid of ableist language in how we talk to folks?
Like. We start to see that it’s way bigger than just this one particular issue. And the trouble with that is the more we get into that, the more people will be like, Oh, well, there’s so many things. How do we handle them? It’s like, well, you have to realize that they’re all connected. You can’t, you can’t say that you support Black Lives Matter and then have a classroom that isn’t accessible to everyone because Black hosts have issues of accessibility too.
This was the big issue I saw with a lot of the black lives matter statements where it was a photo of text on an image, and there was no ALT text to make it accessible to anybody I’m like, well, good on you for making the statement, but we need them to…
So I think back to our conversation, because you’re the person I learned that from. It’s like, Oh, shit. I need to really do that too. And I’m still working on that. Like I’m still, cause I have to be reminded of it right now, which is unfortunate. And that means that I’m doing a disservice to people, but if I can, you can keep it in my mind more often be like, no, if I post an image, I need to post some kind of descriptor of it, then, I’m going to get closer to doing the work, but I’ll also have to admit it’s been, it’s been a long road for me. And if someone calls me out on it, they’re justified in doing so.
And I think that’s something that we have to accept too. Yesterday I had a conversation with a group of people and one of the things that someone mentioned is we had to be willing to be wrong. And I think as institutions, we don’t like to be wrong and I get it. Like, I don’t like to be wrong either. in my relationship, I say that I’m always right. And if my boyfriend is right then, I don’t know, maybe a black hole opened up somewhere in the universe, but, you know, we’re afraid of being wrong and especially stuff like this, it can be really hard. Something my therapist brought up recently is this concept of moral injury. So let’s say J.S., you’re teaching a class and you have a young Black man in class, and you make some offhand comment about, Oh, I think people should all wear belts because why would you sag? nobody wants to see your underwear.
So what does that sound like to that young Black man? Especially hearing that from a white man who is in a position of power. But it’s stuff like that, like being able to check-in and be like, maybe I shouldn’t say that. Or maybe I need to, think about other ways to approach this. That’s really important.
But many people are averse to doing that because I mean, being called racist is, is tantamount to being called the N-word for a lot of white people, which if I had an entire week with no sleep to explain how asinine that is, I could not finish explaining it. (everyone laughs)
So that sense of moral injury is very strong, but I think that’s also what we have to process because when that happens, that’s speaking to something internally within us. It’s not speaking to anything outside. It’s a feeling that we need to respond to and not make anyone else responsible for, but We barely have a culture where emotional reasoning and emotional processing is something that we prioritize. And so when we combine that with an inherently white supremacist, misogynistic, trans-antagonistic, queer,-antagonistic, ableist society, it’s going to be really hard to have that discussion.
But how do you explain all of this to someone in five minutes, have them get it, and then lead a productive discussion?
Yeah, you don’t.
That means that this work is continual. It’s not just a stopping point. We don’t arrive somewhere. We’re constantly working because we might find out that there is an entire class of people who’s been marginalized, we had no idea of it, and we’ve been active or complicit against them, which has happened throughout history.
Like, you know, we say Asian a lot, but Asian means a whole bunch of things. And so East Asian — or this is still Southeast Asian, but, you know, For a Chinese person in San Francisco, they’re going to have different needs than a Hmong person in the Midwest where apparently there’s a huge Hmong population.
Like and it’s really interesting to see that, but also reminds us that, you know, none of these cultures exist as monoliths. we can’t say that we’re handling all Asian issues when we’ve had to re-contextualize, you know, Middle Eastern to be, what is it South Asian in, in some instances like Middle Eastern, it’s just not an accurate term to describe people from that area.
So that means that we’re always going to have to be learning and incorporating new information, which also means we have to constantly be working. So it ends up being, if you present it like this, it can be a whole bunch of cognitive load for someone, But the reality is that’s, nature of what’s occurring around us.
And so unless we start to do that, a lot of what we do is going to be a half measure or a bandaid at best, and, you know, actively harmful at worst.
Yeah, I think these conversations, they’re important to have, but they’re also extremely difficult to have. And having it in a professional setting adds another layer of complexity, you know, even in this conversation, there’ve been a couple of times we’ve brought up the university we work at and I’ve gone like, Ooh, a little nervous, but we need to be able to, to have that freedom, to express and discuss how these issues affect us and how we feel.
I think that that’s important to have those discussions. And in a marketing setting, in a marketing office, there are so many times where we’re looking at an array of photos and trying to choose which one and many times I’ve heard that, and I think I’ve given this direction myself, where I’ve looked at a photo and said, there’s not enough diversity in that photo.
And maybe that’s not the best way to express that. I want to say it’s not a creative choice, but it’s a conscious decision, in how we want to represent the university. And making some of those, it’s hard to, to, to bring that up. I’ve been in those meetings where it’s hard to say, Hey, this could be misconstrued.
You know, hey, I know that having football players use heavy chains in the gym as workout equipment. But if you just have a photo of an African American student with a chain outside of the gym, while even though it is exercise equipment, that’s not okay.
So bringing those up and having those discussions is something that’s really important that, that we understand, and we felt open talking about.
So you brought up a couple of points that I think are really important. Like when it comes to those photos, I’ve asked myself the same question. cause you know, in our residence hall I haven’t liked a lot of the decoration and finally, we were like, you know what, let’s get some new stuff up there, let’s look for pictures. So, you know, I went through, you know, the photo portal and I found pictures for CHPS, but I deliberately chose at least half, which is a really poor metric, but I chose pictures with the more people of color depicted because it was like, well, I want this to be shown.
sometimes you need to do that. I think, you know, there’s not enough diversity in there. I can see where there are pitfalls to that statement. I could also see where you could ask, Hey, who’s being included in this picture?
That puts it in a different framework and gets you to think, I think more intently about if I think about who’s included in this picture that says something to who else is going to see this picture? And so that’s, that can be a helpful framework.
And honestly, we need to be deliberate. Like, I’ve come across a few situations with equal employment recently where, you know, we have a group that’s saying actually the person that we want to be hired for this is from a very specific demographic. And I’m like, actually, yeah, that makes a ton of sense. But folks are like, well, we can do that because of equal opportunity employment. It’s like, Actually, you know, what best practice says when it comes to recruiting people from diverse communities and actually being inclusive? It means that you have to pay attention to those markers.
So instead of no race or no gender, no sexual orientation, actually include it and make sure that the people who are in charge of that, process aren’t being biased. And if they are being biased, that they’re aware of that. cause basically what it ends up doing is punishing people from diverse communities when they apply and the thing is the bias still comes through in any number of ways, whether based on how someone talks about their experiences or their name. So it’s not actually bad to include demographic information in applications. It’s just bad to not consider someone based on those considerations.
And so I can see where that policy came from and where it was meant to protect folks, but really what it ended up doing is relieving primarily white cis-men of the responsibility of hiring diverse teams because, Oh, I’m too biased, I can’t be in charge of this. And so if we do it, it has to be a colorblind process. Anytime you hear the word colorblind immediately, it should raise red flags for you. Besides, like physical colorblindness with your eyes.
Yeah, well, that segues perfectly to my next question a little bit, because you know, diversity isn’t something that’s always expressed visually. You know, there are, there are many disabilities that are, you know, are not, visible to put in a photo, right? So how do we express the sort of nonvisual issues and include that in the marketing process?
So there, I think it’s a really good question. And it, it also, it also prevents us from talking about diversity clearly, or just in terms of race, which is what a lot of people do. they mean diversity in terms of like people of color, not all these other marginalized and disenfranchised communities.
So I think they’re what you need to do is be intentional about where else is that marketing coming up? Say queerness or transness. To some degree, I agree there is a visual aspect of that, but it’s heavily informed by stereotypes. gender essentialism, all that kind of stuff. But if you want to include queer and trans folks, it could be showing someone holding up a Pride flag. That actually, believe it or not, that can go a really long way for what a university looks like.
I’ll be doing a job search within the next couple of years. If I see a university that has, definitely your students, but faculty and staff holding Pride flags or with some kind of paraphernalia. Yeah. Yeah. I’m going to feel way more welcome there. Granted, that doesn’t mean that these other problems that we’ve talked about suddenly gone, it just means that, Hey, they actually decided to use the Pride flag in their promotional material.
That’s a big ass deal. So I think that’s one way to do it, but also, you know, It’s not always easy to market, like the programs that we’re actively doing, but in recruitment materials and reaching out to students, I think there are ways to do that. So like student services can say that the counseling center has done a trans-support group, you know, within the past few years and that, you know, we could still do one again if people wanted to attend, that’s literally all it takes.
We can talk about different cultural events, like, coming out day, we can talk about, what is it called? Amigo Fest or Amigo Cup?
Okay. The Amigo Cup? We can talk about, Panhellenic Step events. We can talk about Miss Essence. There’s a lot of things that we could actually advertise. And so it comes from, I think, figuring out all the different ways that we reach students via communication and letting them know what’s actually going on.
We know that they’re not going to read all of it. We know that they’re not going to digest all of it. However, I would much rather put out something, let’s say we have a brochure that has literally every service that campus offers. I’d rather put out something that mentions PRISM and Pride events on one page that someone can miss, then not do it at all and not have the opportunity to even broach that topic with them.
So what you’re saying, Allen is that it’s the university’s actions and how they actually do embrace diversity and not what they put on a brochure that is what’s important.
So it’s really funny to hear you say it like that, but, um, yes. (laughs)
I mean, we, we know we need to do a better job of marketing, what we do. And in residential colleges, we deal with that too. You know, how can we get a group of students who don’t really know what college is, by no fault of their own, to understand college and what we do, and that co-curricular programs are not just something that you have to attend because you’re in a class, but something that you can really benefit from? Like, I talk about like, you know, I talked about ping-pong tournament and video game demo day, but we have Do Nothing Day in the fall where literally we just sit and do nothing.
And I talk about, Hey, this is actually important. Like this is a vital health behavior. we do stuff for LGBTQ history month and Black History Month because these people exist. Like, Black and queer and trans folks exist. So let’s, let’s have a discussion. I guess with them in mind.
Of course, you know, the reason I do them is because I’m Black and gay and so there’s, there’s a community connection there. but also keeping in mind that I am one Black person, I’m one gay person. I don’t cover the entire experience, and so addressing that. But yeah, like I think there are lots of ways we’re doing that. We need to communicate it better to students. and I think we need a system in place where students have a little bit more protection and they have more agency to talk about instructors who are saying racist things or trans-antagonistic things in the classroom.
I mean, it all comes down to your point, like, It has to be a reflection of the work that’s being done, not, superficial platitudes, whether in word or in image that say that we support diversity when the execution of those initiatives is mediocre at best.
And I think that kind of bookends the conversation really well back to the tweet that started this of, Hey, I, I don’t think that tweet would have resonated as much if all the students that, that replied to it did not feel that their university supported them. In addition to the marketing, right.
Well, and on that point, this is a problem across the sector. it’s every university and that’s, and that’s. I mean, that’s why I thought this is a super important conversation to have because it really does show up everywhere. And J.S. and I have both worked at multiple universities and we’ve seen it at multiple universities and it’s not just a problem in the Midwest. It’s not just a problem in the South. It’s not just a problem on the West Coast or the East Coast. It’s a problem everywhere.
And that… if you want it to talk for three more hours or more, I could, like, I think that would be excellent because one of the things that like chafes my buns is the fact that like Northern folks will say, we’re not racist like the South. And like you’re still white! Or, or when Canadians or folks from the UK, especially are like America is so racist, like. Canada. How, how do you treat indigenous folks? And the UK, you literally had Brexit within the past few, few years. So you don’t, you don’t get to… like, calling out America is totally justified, but just make sure you’re coming from a good place in that you have all your shit in order.
I think one of the most valuable things with social media on that line is that especially through the Black Lives Matter protests recently for George Floyd and going through that, seeing the voices coming out of countries like the UK and Canada, where, you know, their, their history of, racism, of, hatred and the ways that they’ve done it have been different than what the US has experienced, but it’s no less evil, you know, it’s no less counter to other people. And so seeing those voices kind of come up, I have a lot of friends in the UK. I have several friends that are Canadian. And then, I mean, even like going through the EU, I mean, protests in France and everywhere else. There, there isn’t another time really, where we would have seen that kind of global, empowerment, I guess, of everyone. And that’s been, that’s been encouraging and also, I don’t know. It’s very challenging too, at the same time. it kinda like has to light a fire under you.
I think it’s. I’m trying to be careful about how I frame everything that’s going on. cause in some ways it is a perfect storm. There are things that I’m grateful for. Like finding out what schedule at work actually does work for me. but you know, the fact is we are living in a pandemic and we’re all home and bored and angry and frustrated. And so people had time is basically what you’re seeing.
Luckily, most of those people are wearing masks as well. And so, I’m really encouraged to see that, at least based on projections, a lot of the COVID spikes and areas have been more to reopening, not because of the protests. Um, but all that to say, yeah, we’re at home and we’re busy and capitalism wasn’t making us so tired that we couldn’t march in the street anymore. So, what happened.
I think there’s an argument to be made for like the pandemics, a complication of something like this. And I think it definitely, it definitely galvanized everyone because of what you said. Everyone had time to like, well, geez, I actually have time to go act on this. Like, let’s do something.
And then like, there’s a big movement too, with the slogan, ” if you’ve protested get tested,” like. A lot, a lot of the protesters are doing it very responsibly, and being sure that you know, they are risking their own health, but they’re not also risking the health of others. They’re going in quarantine themselves afterwards.
It’s like that. There’s a big push for that.
Yeah, like protests I had to realize that it’s just not my ministry. It’s not something I ever wanted to do. I wanted to show up in other ways. And especially right now, I’m like, “uh-uh”, but I applaud everybody. Like my brother and sister have gone out and I’ve checked in with him, like, Hey, is there anything that you need, um, watch out for drones, you know, providing support to them in the way that I can.
Cause I really, applaud them for, you know, going out to the street. And so I recognized that it was important. but the thing that makes me sad is for however much, I wish everyone would just stay home and take care of themselves and, not risk exposure, exposure for themselves and for other people. if people hadn’t gone out to the street, this would have just been dismissed. Like I know it for certainty, nobody would have listened. And that makes me really, really sad.
It upsets me that we could have all these voices on social media. And in fact, in a way where you could be flooded with them in a way that you can’t when folks are on the street and no one would listen. And so I’m glad that something made people listen, it’s just, I am worried for the protesters and I want them to be safe and taken care of which that’s why I’m happy that a lot of the protests materials I’ve seen across the nation have supported wearing masks, being careful about symptoms. some have even said, if you go to a protest, excellent. You might wanna isolate yourself for the next two weeks. And like, there’s a lot of responsibility that’s being done in these movements, but I guess that’s always how it’s been.
When we rely on people in power, we don’t really get anything done. It’s through grassroots and public and, communal efforts that we really accomplish a lot of things.
And I think that’s what the protests, in particular, have been pointing to. And it’s been a helpful reminder that the work looks like a lot of different things. And so we need to show up in a lot of different ways. But also reminding ourselves that just because you went to a protest doesn’t mean that you create a material change for people, but because you were visible, that did mean that other people might be able to glean from that and maybe get some confidence and some tricks from it.
We could probably talk for another three or four hours on this. Oh easily. Like you said, you can talk for a whole week without sleep and still have things to touch on. So thank you so much for being with us. Dr. Allen Thomas, and, um, I, is there any, anywhere, you know, people who want to learn more, you recommend they can find you, or do you have any recommendations for further
Do you want them to find you?
Hmm. Oh, okay. I write for this website called Comicosity. I’ve been writing for them for the past. Oh wow. It’s almost six years in August. the early part of my tenure was a lot of reviews, of course. You can probably find the meanest thing I’ve ever written about anything.
Um, Yeah, it was, it was bad. Do not ever read Civil War II. It’s a terrible story. but I have a column, it used to be called Representation in Health 101 and now it’s Health and Inclusivity, but I do a lot of these discussions through the lens of particular comic characters or stories or, um, artists, any iteration of that. And so, you know, I break down a lot of these messages, but really how this form of media can be really helpful. And then some of the challenges to that, like.
One that I hope to get up soon was about a recent manga called Given. It’s about two high school kids, two college kids. they’re all boys, they’re all gay and it is wonderful. So I wrote about that from my perspective, but also like, Hey, being gay in Japan is not the same as being gay in America. and so even though I love this story and I get a lot from it, I do have to consider that cultural aspect too.
All that, to say. Cause I talked to a whole bunch all the time. Um, Comicosity, Allen Thomas, um, Google, and you can find a lot of my work there.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Allen. It’s been great.
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