Op-ed: Feeling some kind of way

Mary McKay, Lori White, Emelyn dela Pena

Student Life recently covered various aspects of the annual Washington University “Day of Discovery, Dialogue and Action” (DoDDA) held Feb. 18-20. As university leaders involved in planning the events, we write to express our gratitude for all who participated, contributed and are committed to this work across our campus and our region. As we continue to process the learning and growth that came out of DoDDA, we and many others still “feel some kind of way” (the title of a workshop led by Denise DeCou, manager of diversity and community outreach in the Office of Human Resources). We feel challenged, anxious, vulnerable and, above all else, inspired and motivated. There is much we continue to grapple with, both in reflecting upon the year’s program and planning for future events.

DoDDA originated five years ago when, following the death of Michael Brown, Jr., university leaders recognized the need for our community to come together and connect over some very challenging realities. Then, just as now, the planning committee aimed to create space for knowledge sharing and exchange, thought-provoking conversations and opportunities to leverage the privilege of institutional resources to advance equity. DoDDA has helped us identify opportunities to catalyze change and address deep-rooted inequities in our institution and society. The central focus of the program is to challenge ourselves to do more to advance diversity, inclusion and equity on campus and in the St. Louis community.

This year’s theme, “Dialogue Across Differences,” guided our plans for members of our diverse community to share their experiences and engage in more authentic conversations across perspectives and positions. A hallmark distinction for this year was the addition of the word “action” to the title of the program, to signal the significance of building on discovery and dialogue to catalyze action. The chorus of student voices throughout the program brought critical issues to the forefront. Their raised voices reinforced that we must stay focused on real change.

We and others have found ourselves “feeling some kind of way” about remarks during the panel discussion portion of the keynote address given by Irshad Manji, an author and educator. While we respect Manji’s right to offer her perspective, as fellow educators, we also have the right (and obligation) to challenge ideas with which we do not agree, and to provide a different, evidence-based assertion.

Manji gave a well-received presentation on moral courage. During the discussion that followed her keynote address, Manji asserted that people of color had more power to effect change in their circumstances than they were using and that marginalized people bore the responsibility of educating others about their lived experiences. We were especially troubled by these comments that did not acknowledge the potency of structural racism, or the trauma associated with lifelong experiences characterized by racism and oppression in all its forms. The condition known as “racial battle fatigue,” a term coined by Dr. William A. Smith of the University of Utah, is just one manifestation of the daily indignities faced by marginalized communities. The effects of racial battle fatigue are serious consequences of the persistent struggle marginalized groups experience when they feel they must constantly justify and explain the oppression they encounter. The stress of existing in psychologically unsafe and hostile spaces is “mentally, emotionally and physically draining,” Smith argues. Additionally, symptoms of battle fatigue such as depression and anxiety often go unnoticed and untreated.

Humbly, we regret the distress these particular remarks from our speaker caused for some members of the audience, and that these critical points were not raised in response. Moreover, when a challenge arose from an audience member, we missed the opportunity to magnify the voice of dissent. Regretfully, this undermined the broader aim of creating a space of respect and reconciliation. Conversations—authentic exchanges between individuals—are an extremely valuable tool in advancing equity and remain a central feature of our learning environment. As administrative leaders in the Washington University community, a fundamental function of our roles is to ensure dialogues across differences continue to occur—in our classrooms, in our residence halls, in our office buildings and in our neighborhoods.

Our commitment is to bring our learning—a reflection of DoDDA—and skills to eliminate bias and bridge difference within our university. We hope that by sharing our feelings and reflections, we continue to spur challenging conversations within our community, and that these conversations inspire even more opportunities for dialogue and action.

Mary McKay, Ph.D., Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School
Lori S. White, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs
Emelyn A. dela Pena, Ed.D., Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion

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