On the way to take my children to school recently, there was a teaching moment I walked away feeling proud of. Like going to college, in parenting there are many tests; unlike school exam questions, however, there is rarely one right answer. Motherhood is full of failures and my eight-year-old usually lets me know when I mark below the curve.
That day he challenged me with a question of our dual national identity.
“Are we Italian or are we American?” he asked.
I responded, “We are 100% American citizens and 100% Italian citizens. We are not more or less of one.”
I could tell this needed further explaining, “We cannot be divided into two halves. Just as one plus one equals two, one identity plus another is more and not less.”
He’s pretty good at math so I think he understood. But it got me thinking, how many of us are ingrained to believe that we are less when we do not fit in with the socially dominant group’s normalized identities (i.e., male, white race, middle- and upper class, abled, middle-aged, heterosexual, gentiles). The fact is, we are born into a societal structure designed to devalue one person over another, which creates systems of power and oppression.
Parents of marginalized identities sometimes find the need to protect their children for this reality by preparing them to handle bias, exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, and racism. We must ensure that children of every race, gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status grow to believe they are more and not less.
A migrant child who speaks English and Spanish has more language, not less. An indigenous student who shares her culture of spiritual connectedness with her peers is more aware, not less. A refugee who describes fleeing a war-torn country has more courage, not less. A first-generation college student who spends his Friday nights washing dishes in a busy restaurant instead of attending the football game has more job experience, not less.
While our unique identities contribute to society, racial aggressions and minoritized status stress commonly experienced by disenfranchised groups is an assault on who they are. After leaving the protective childhood home for college, it can extinguish the love and sense of belonging we developed with our family of origin.
In Abraham Maslow’s human psychological model, he theorized that people cannot transcend to fulfilling their full potential until they have met earlier stages of development, including basic physical and psychological needs, safety, security, belongingness, and love. Basic needs and safety precede self-esteem and self-actualization. Imagine how hard it is to climb the ladder of success when you struggle daily to fulfill your needs for safety and belonging on a regular basis. We have a stake in the success of every individual in our society. Societal failures are costly, resulting in the diversion of billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, and so far, not even money has solved our most complex problems.
So how can our society be more equitable and just? We must get to the root of injustice, focus on prevention, and promote personal transformation. We can help by having open minds and being inclusive. Start with hearing and understanding the stories of diverse people in your community. Read the news and avoid turning a blind eye. Be empathetic and appreciate the richness in the heterogeneity of a population. In a globally competitive economy, this is what sets America apart from the rest of the world. Diversity is our asset.
A college campus rich in diversity brings wealth to all members of its community. We must not underestimate the value of culture. Imagine a world without color. In tones of black and white, we would wind up with a lot of grey. What a dreary place that would be.
Unfortunately, the reality is marginalized students are having different experiences in the same environments as historic shadows nationwide are difficult to unthread.
Recent research from the National College Student Bystander Intervention Survey (NCSBIS) conducted by WITH US Center for Bystander Intervention at Cal Poly found that incidents of bias, exclusion, discrimination are prevalent in college communities. In the 2020 national aggregate of 13 institutions representing six states, 54% of nearly 4,000 students surveyed said they witnessed acts of bias, exclusion, or discrimination the last academic year. Of the acts they witnessed 2,124 respondents said the groups were targeted based on the following: nationality, native language, race/ethnicity (77%); gender, gender expressions, gender identity (43%), sexual orientation (26%); religion (17%); and disability (10%).
Acts of bias create further barriers to marginalized students who are already tasked with more developmental challenges than their socially dominant peers. Research shows that a negative campus racial climate can have profound effects on students’ mental health. This is not how we create community and advance society.
What do acts of bias look like? The following are some examples that were taken from the NCSBIS:
Be an ally to people of color. Welcome everyone. Be inclusive. Celebrate diversity. Change campus culture. And on the ladder to success, if you get to the top first, reach out your hand and pull up the others stuck on the lower rungs. It can be lonely and scary at the top, and without the diversity and beauty of cultural capital you might get tired of grey.