Don't Just Stand There, Say Something

June 25, 2010


“Well, look who’s here,” sneered my older, tenured, male colleague, “It’s Dr. Diversity.” Leaning into the old boys’ corner of the musty mailroom, he chuckled and continued talking with his buddies. I cringed and pretended to receive his remark as a compliment. With a forced smile, I hurried past them to collect my mail. Surely he wasn’t disparaging my emerging research interest on supporting student diversity. Or was he?

It was my third year as an assistant professor. Until that day I’d naively imagined all of my peers valued my research on supporting student identity differences. Maybe I needed to do a little more nosing around to learn whether others felt this way. If this guy wasn’t on board, there were probably more like him sniggling around out there.

Note to self: These are the folks who’d be judging my tenure and promotion application in a few years.

Fast-forward 15 years. Tenure and promotion granted, full professorship earned. Male colleague retires. I co-write a book aimed at helping faculty and staff support student identity differences. I send him a copy.

For many people, the workplace is the only place they experience diversity. We interact with people of varied backgrounds, in an environment where power and bias can thrive. Knowing a few simple ways to respond to bigoted casual comments and stereotyping can significantly curb everyday intolerance.\

Mission statements and vision documents don’t establish an organization’s culture. Daily interactions do. Whether you’re a university president, a middle manager, staff, or senior colleague, you can help set the tone for an unbiased, respectful workplace. It goes beyond valuing a person’s research interest. Everyday interactions offer myriad opportunities for helping others examine their behavior.

For example, when a colleague refers to something as “so gay,” laughs about something being “so retarded,” or judges someone’s religious background as inferior, speak up and ask: “What was homosexual about it?” “What does that mean, being so retarded?” or “How is Buddhism less significant than Christianity?”

Sometimes we might be the one making a misstep like this. If so, make amends quickly and sincerely by saying something like: “What an insensitive thing for me to say. I’m sorry.” Then promise yourself you’ll work to change your behavior.

Meetings and everyday interactions between people from different parts of an organization sometimes bring out biases and stereotypes we’ve held since childhood. For example, we may group people based on a single part of their identity with statements like, “Those people are all so lazy!” or “You’re the woman on our committee, you can be the secretary.

If you experience something like this, be ready with an open-ended question like, “How did you develop that belief?” or “Why do you think that?” Sometimes a friendly suggestion is helpful: “I’m willing to let one of my male colleagues take a turn at capturing our conversation today. Who’s ready to share the power of the pen?”

When you catch yourself making a stereotypical statement, as happens to all of us, seek help from your coworkers to learn more about groups of people you tend to generalize about.

Thirty percent of workers say they’ve heard colleagues use racial or ethnic slurs in the past 12 months. The same number report hearing sexist comments. Twenty percent of workers say they’ve overheard age-related ridicule, and 20 percent report hearing jabs aimed at sexual orientation. And that’s just what people are saying in public.

How can we be ready to recognize these flashpoint moments, and summon our courage to respond in respectful, direct ways?

Start by thinking of yourself as the one who will speak up. There are already plenty of people who will remain silent. To boost your courage, it helps to have something in mind before an incident occurs: “I’m sorry – what’s so funny?” or “Why do you feel that way?”

When you’re identifying other peoples’ behavior, try not to label or name-call (even if they did).

Describe the behavior, but don’t label the person who made the comment: “I’ve always thought of you as a fair-minded person, so I’m surprised to hear you say that.” Appeal to their positive dispositions, knowing that what we might say in one moment or venue is just a small part of what we think.

Though you can’t control someone else, you can set limits: “Please don’t use that language when I’m around.” Attitudes may not change, but bad behavior is less contagious with limits.

Change happens slowly, and you don’t have to be the first voice to speak up in flashpoint situations. If you aren’t the first voice, be one of the next ones.

And promise me this: if you overhear someone making a biased reference to someone or something (say, your commitment to supporting difference), at least say “Ouch!” like I wish I had when it happened to me.


Karen Hoelscher co-wrote Managing Diversity Flashpoints in Higher Education (Greenwood, 2008; Rowan & Littlefield, 2010). She is professor of education at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Wash.

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