By Michael Bugeja
Over the course of my academic and professional career, I have tried several methods to increase awareness about diversity and inclusion in my large-section media ethics and technology classes. I also am a frequent speaker in business and organizational meetings. The challenges are the same. Typically, lecturing about the importance of diversity is insufficient. While speeches do inform about concepts associated with racism and stereotypes, too often they fail to inspire discussion and introspection, necessary components of engagement.
Engagement involves emotions. But emotions can backfire in the classroom if they involve persuasion, politics, and passion, especially by the instructor. Students distrust persuasion, politics evoke correctness, and passion entails risk of offense. Any one of those outcomes can stifle or silence discussion.
Emotional intelligence asks us to feel, affirm, and question our own perceptions, values, and convictions.
In 1988 at Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism, I asked students of color to meet privately with me before class. I shared what I intended to do in my predominantly white classroom, inquiring whether they would participate in an exercise that might change attitudes. They agreed. I provided each with a slip of paper and asked them to remember a time when they experienced racism, jotting down one word that summarized the experience.
They provided me with this list:
Then, we entered the classroom.
About 100 students were assembled in the Scripps auditorium. I announced the following from a prepared script:
“Remember a time when you had important news to tell to someone you trusted or felt was your friend—a parent, a coach, a pastor, a cleric, a counselor, a roommate, a partner, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend. It could be an achievement. Perhaps an exciting internship or travel opportunity. You shared that news enthusiastically. Your confidant didn’t celebrate with you but said something completely unexpected—a put-down or negative response—exactly the opposite of what you had anticipated. In one word, how did that make you feel when it happened?”
As you can see, the question has little to do with diversity and inclusion, but much to do with experience and emotion. Students of color didn’t respond during the initial discussion. Others raised their hands, recalling myriad disappointments. I put each of their words on the chalkboard.
When discussion ended, I circled words my students of color had previously provided, explaining my motive—how racism feels. Although I did not record student responses the first time I tried the experiment, I do recall that several words (“angry,” “demoralized,” “frustrated”) appeared on both lists.
I used that original list each year in ethics classes at Ohio University and, later, at Iowa State University.
I tell my students, “You might not experience intolerance or bias, but now you can relate to how it feels—the first step in understanding racism, bias, and exclusion. Now imagine if you felt this hurt on a regular basis. How might that affect you?”
White students who shared words about disappointment had no idea they were participating in a diversity exercise. Afterwards, the entire class discussed the cumulative impact of hurtful words, associating them now with exclusion. Discussion became more focused and insightful, indicating higher levels of emotional intelligence.
I have used the list in speaking engagements with professionals with similar results. It has always proved to be a great discussion starter.
Open discussion inspires introspection as we explore who, what, where, when, why, and how attitudes about race were formulated.
Journaling allows people to express or record their feelings in private. Writing about feelings and experiences often elicits important hitherto unexplored truths.
Here’s the exercise, which can work in any academic or professional setting:
I. Personal Assessment. Contemplate the following:
1. List the highs, lows, and turning points about race, sex/gender, disability, and social class in your:
2. Analyze your list by addressing the following:
- What epiphanies, truths, or lessons did you learn from each high, low, and turning point?
- What falsehoods, if any, were associated with each?
- How do incidents, truths, lessons, and falsehoods relate to diversity (or lack thereof) within your life, family, work, town, country, world?
- How have they enhanced or biased your conscience?
- How have they enhanced or biased your consciousness?
- How can you apply lessons based on truth in your life?
II. Personal Valuation. Contemplate the following:
- When introducing truths about race, sex/gender, disability, and social class or other such societal concerns, do you present your best or your ordinary self to others? For example, how do you introduce such material at work, at home, at school? Do your representations differ in each venue, and if so, why?
- Are you avoiding discussion of sensitive or potentially controversial issues and if so, why? Peer pressure? Fear of mistakes? Anger? Approval-seeking? What can educators, coworkers, and supervisors do to make you feel more comfortable engaging in discussions about race, gender, or social class?
III. Summary Assessment. Writing Assignment:
- Based on your truths and analyses in sections I and II, and without violating your own or someone else’s privacy, write a short essay explaining how this exercise helped you understand your feelings about bias, whether people or events in your past shaped your attitudes, and why you do or do not speak out about diversity and inclusion.
I do not share or respond to assessments out of privacy concerns. The exercise is ungraded for that reason. But they do inform me about what I should cover in class to make a lasting impression. Often, dominant factors shaping attitudes and beliefs stem from family upbringing, peer pressure, chance encounters, or inadvertent race-based mistakes and subsequent embarrassment. Over time, assessments increased my own awareness, informing lectures and discussions.
Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism, won his college’s 2017 diversity award. He also has twice won the distinguished Clifford Christians Award for Research in Media Ethics. Under his directorship in 2015, Iowa State’s Greenlee School won the national Diversity and Equity award bestowed by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.
Bugeja, who teaches media ethics, and technology and social change, has published 24 books across genres, including three books by Oxford University Press: Interpersonal Divide: Searching for Community in a Technological Age; Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine; and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms. His latest work is Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2019.