Building Community: One respectful step at a time

by Karen Roth, Diversity Coordinator

At the  last Fall COCC Campus Retreat in September, I introduced, on behalf of the campus’ Diversity Committee, the Principles of Community.  This document was actually retrieved from the inner depths of the Student Rights and Responsibilities webpage, and had been created by a team headed by then Director of Student Life, Sara Henson.  While reviewing this statement, the Diversity Committee decided that it could be used as a set of principles guiding all of our activities and behaviors on the campus, in the classroom, in the workplace, etc.  If you haven’t seen a copy of the revised Principles as yet, here is the link from the Multicultural Center’s website:  http://www.cocc.edu/principles-of-community/

This document, however, only makes a difference in our campus community if we understand it and practice what it asks of us.  For example, let’s say you are having lunch with a colleague and she makes a racist remark.  What will you do?  Do the Principles have anything that would be instructive on how to respond?  I think many of us might feel uncomfortable in this situation but not know what to say.  We don’t want to hear this kind of language, but we also want to maintain the relationship with have with this colleague.  In these kinds of situations, it has always helped me to ask myself a few questions:

  • If any of the friends of mine who are People of Color were sitting next to me, how might they feel about the comment?  And what would they hope I would do in support of ending racist remarks?
  • Will I be able to maintain my relationship with this colleague now that I have heard what she had to say?  Will this incident somehow change how I feel about her?
  • If I don’t speak up, might I be subjected to hearing this kind of comment again in the future?  Or might this colleague think that I share her views about the group she has just disrespected?
  • Lastly, what did she mean by her comment?  Did she intend to make a racially maligning statement?  Or did she not know that her comment could be taken as bigoted?

Over the many, many times I’ve encountered this kind of situation, my honest reflection of these questions always prompts me to speak up.  As a way of beginning, it seems most important to find out what was meant by the comment.  So, I often start by asking, “What did you mean by that?”  Often times, the person has no idea that what they said was offensive and they are appalled that they let those words come out of their mouth.  I’ve been in a similar place before as well, when a phrase I grew up with was just common language and I didn’t even know what it meant.  Common phrases among teenagers right now are “That’s so gay!” or “That’s so retarded!”  When confronted, most of them admit they didn’t know that these comments were considered offensive to the gay/lesbian or the disability communities.

At times, however, the person did mean what they said and harbors ill-will towards members of other ethnic groups.  In these cases, I am prompted to take more time to talk further with the person, to find out how they came to hold the views that they have, and to share information or personal feelings that I have about the groups.  Usually we come to a better understanding, and while we may not always agree, the person typically doesn’t repeat similar comments in my presence.  I also believe that even if the person repeats their remark with other folks, our conversation will pop up in their memory and perhaps change how and when they use it again.

Over the years, I have become less worried about how I will be perceived by others if I interrupt an offensive comment and more concerned about the quality of the community that I want to exist for everyone.  By allowing bigoted statements to go unchallenged, we are essentially promoting the level of community that we believe is acceptable. 

At the retreat, I offered the “Tolerance Scale” that I hoped would help us consider the kind of community that we want to foster.  The scale moves from Tolerance (one step better than intolerance, hatred, or bigotry) to Acceptance, Respect, and finally, Advocacy.  While “tolerating” someone is certainly better than actively discriminating against someone, for me, it’s not the kind of community that I want to settle for.  An “accepting” environment is certainly better, but I worry that if there is a disagreement among community members, we may not have a deep enough relationship to sustain our acceptance of one another.  “Respect,” on the other hand, means that I have a deep commitment to someone so that even if we happen to disagree about some  core values, we will still share a high regard for one another and maintain our relationship.  Advocacy takes us even one step further to that place where we will ensure that other people’s rights to a fair and respectful community are maintained.  We will speak up on behalf of others if they are being treated as “less than.”

Creating a respectful and diverse community benefits all of us.  We will be more creative, more satisfied, more productive when we have an environment that values and affirms us.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that helps us all thrive!  It is my goal to help us create this kind of community here at COCC so that we can all enjoy the time we spend together here.

I hope you will join me in making the Principles of Community a living document by practicing the actions that it recommends.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts about our new Principles of Community and welcome your input on how we can further this dialogue.

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