This is a guest post by Eileen Hegel of Higher Ways. I met Eileen when we overlapped on the Clemson faculty for a brief period of time. We got into a conversation on Facebook about the power of words in a diversity context.. and I asked her for a guest post. Here it is.
Words have power. We have all said or heard the words fat, ugly, skinny, beautiful or perhaps gay. The impact of words, even just one, should not be overlooked as they can speak hope or hatred.
Without a doubt, words can inspire us to forge ahead or instigate failure. I am positive we can all think of words that have ignited our heart. In the same fashion, I am sure we can reflect upon words that have fueled a fight. Hence, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling noted, “Words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Recently, I had an opportunity to become reacquainted with the power of my words. Herein, I said something that sparked a mini-wildfire in a person. Shortly thereafter, another word, this time a missing one, caused me some challenges with the same person. I knew that I had set off the fire alarm once again!
In both instances, one word triggered a set of emotions. Words have an interesting way of doing this. The trigger may go beyond what we see on the surface. In fact, words often do.
Whether two people know each other or they don’t, words can be like a match. Words have the power to either kindle the fire of friendship or scorch a relationship. How we handle words may be the difference between saving a soul or in some cases, sending the relationship into ashes.
Although I can think of times when my words have blackened some bridges, maturity has for the most part, taught me to pay attention to what I say. Even with care in the use of my words, they will always have a transactional effect. Hence, words make for an interesting fuel between two people.
In fact, I will never forget the time my words truly stoked a spirit. While teaching a group of alternative students, I let 13 year old, Jeff, know I enjoyed him in my class. He told me, “No teacher has ever told me that!” I secretly understood why, but nevertheless, I meant what I said.
The next day, my boss let me know she had received a call from Jeff’s psychologist. The psychologist wanted her to know that in his 20 years of counseling, he had never seen a kid turn around so fast. He wanted to know what the school and his teacher were doing. Unbeknownst to me, Jeff had been suicidal before he came to my room. That day, I knew, that the power of words were, indeed, the power of life!
I do not claim to understand the entire context or meaning of this quote, but here is what I take it to signify: When you witness injustice, you do harm by not saying anything.
My friends and I have been talking about this a lot. There are situations at work when people say mildly (or even acutely) offensive things, ranging from “hi, girls!” (to a group of female faculty members or staff) to stronger displays of who is in power, who is allowed to speak, and who is too low on the hierarchy to be right.
We all recognize that when things like this happens, it is wrong to let them go. We should say something. We should speak up, cry foul, use the opportunity to educate and raise awareness of how to communicate in an inclusive workplace.
But how do you do this when the people you are talking to are your colleagues (which translates to superiors, if you are not tenured), and when you are a woman, and this means you risk being labeled as “bitchy” as soon as you say something that’s perceived as unpleasant.
I’ve read a blog post from a woman in a tech company that recommended replying like a man would do, humorously, with something along the lines of: “dude, not cool.” I don’t think that would work in academia.
I know from research in communication that the solution is to provide training to recognize these situations and to teach people specific lines they can use when they are flustered and shocked and can’t think of anything to say. I wish I could post here a collection of such lines, but I do not know of any.
Do you have links to any resources that can help, or any experiences we can learn from?
[Guest posting this on our college’s dean’s blog]
I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”
The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:
“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”
“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”
The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.
Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all – this is the new normal.
Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of “pinkification” as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:
– offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;
– changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (what, men don’t? not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);
– putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;
… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?
So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.
Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck” – maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” – and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?
Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them – and contribute to shaping their sense of self.
Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.
What other ideas do you have?
A student forwarded me this article, via our diversity officer. It is an excellent exercise that not only helps put current events into perspective (would you allow others the freedoms you take for granted?), but also forces the reader to reflect on the meaning of “normal, mainstream Americans” – a very restricted meaning, unfortunately.
From the San Francisco Sentinel:
Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure – the ones who are driving the action – we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.
So let’s begin.
Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protester — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose. READ MORE, please.