A small gesture (Or why bother with DEI training)
A small gesture (Or why bother with DEI training)Katherine Goodman, PhD | Division for Teaching Innovation & Program Strategy Dec 4, 2023
Three or four hands went up; he called on someone. One of the researchers who had given a talk responded. More hands went up to ask the next question. Nothing out of the ordinary.
After a few questions, I noticed a Black woman had been patiently raising her hand each time, and had been since the first round of questions. She may have been the only Black woman in the room; she was certainly one of only a handful of people of color there. As a speaker wrapped up an answer and the moderator gestured for more questions, she raised her hand again. For the first time, I raised my hand. He called on me.
“I believe she had a question first,” I said, and used my raised hand to gesture toward the Black woman. She launched into her question and the flow of the session continued without a ripple.
The next morning, in that lull between breakfast and people moving onto morning talks, I happened to speak with her, and she thanked me for ceding the question to her. She commented that she was pretty sure the moderator didn’t realize he was skipping over her multiple times. I agreed.
Maybe he should have noticed. I thought.
I thanked her for her talk; she had given the keynote address during breakfast. We both went on our way to the rest of the conference.
Ten years ago, I’m not sure I would have noticed that this colleague was being passed over. But since then I’ve read about how those with privilege can take up space without realizing we’re crowding some people out (Nishi, 2023). I’ve taken training on how small things like thoughtless comments, or how we call on people in class, can add up to make our classrooms very discouraging places, and that those small things are called micro-aggressions (Allen et al., 2019). And I’ve learned how these seemingly insignificant slights can add up, to nudge people away. Often, we nudge away the same groups of people we’re loudly proclaiming we want to include. Case in point: several of the talks in that conference session were about efforts to recruit and retain students from under-represented groups, often people of color, in engineering programs.
Ten years ago, I was not self-aware enough to notice that these micro-aggressions happen all around us, to us, and by us. And yet, as soon as I had a name for it, I recognized them in my own life. I’ve worked in software development, and I’m now an engineering professor. Being a “woman in tech” means I’ve sometimes had to maneuver hostile work cultures, and I’ve been fortunate to have mentors to guide me through some of them. And yet, I wasn’t seeing how my own behavior was adding to the problem for others, and I had no guidance on how to react when I did notice it.
From reading the research and engaging in training, I’m learning more ways to respond. I’ve become more confident in the small gesture of ceding my question time to someone who’s been waiting for it. I’ve become more comfortable pulling aside a colleague to let them know a certain phrase has a double meaning, one of them offensive to some of his students. I’ve become more adamant when someone tells me their sexist or homophobic comments are no big deal, and instead used my voice to insist that they listen, not just to me, but to the people (often students) who are being silenced, nudged out, and discouraged.
If I want my workplace, my classroom, my community to be more inclusive, I need to notice and respond. If I want these positive practices to spread, I need to continue the training that supports that change. That training is not a single afternoon seminar spent thinking about these things, but a deliberate intention to deepen my awareness. To be effective, we need practice in noticing and responding, and what’s more, we need to think ahead. Instead of being reactive, can we shape our interactions to be inclusive? That kind of development is better done in community, with colleagues you can trust, and then turn to in an ongoing fashion. You can think of it as the work of engineering design, shifted to improve professional interactions: design, test, iterate. You can think of it as the work of writing in any discipline: draft, review with feedback, revise. This is a professional practice we all engage in.
In short, we know DEI training is working if we notice and act to correct exclusionary practices. It’s working when we begin to change our behavior and our workplaces to be actively inclusive.
On the Journey,
Allen, B. J., Phillips, Q., House, Jr, E., Peña, T., Espinosa, L., Ivancovich, T., Easley, N., de la Cruz, M., & Holladay, C. (2019). Equity Toolkit. Colorado Department of Higher Education. http://masterplan.highered.colorado.gov/equitytoolkit/
Nishi, N. W. (2023). It’s only micro when you don’t experience it: Stealth racist abuse in college algebra. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 16(4), 509–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000359