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"Racial Conflicts As Learning Opportunities" Critical Conversation #2

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
August 17, 2015 Sherry K. Watt

Do colleges and universities too often respond to campus racial conflicts primarily as crises to be managed and too seldom utilize such situations as opportunities to help students deepen their understanding of racial differences and racism?   Critical Conversation #2   

Colleges and universities are under considerable pressure to preserve a positive image and reputation of the institution.  Racial conflicts on campus often bring intense negative publicity, and too often the institutional response to campus racial conflicts is to resolve the conflict as quickly and quietly as possible.  This response to racial conflicts often fails to address the needs of students and others on campus to engage in difficult dialogue and reflection about the roots of racism and how ingrained racial attitudes can affect personal beliefs and behaviors.

What are some of the strategies and approaches that faculty and staff might utilize to deepen dialogue and understanding when racial conflicts do occur on college campuses?  Do efforts to manage campus racial conflicts focus too heavily on restoring the status quo and promoting harmony at the expense of difficult dialogue and understanding?

We asked JCC's August 2015 Focus Author Sherry K. Watt, who is the author of “Situating Race in College Students’ Search for Purpose and Meaning: Who am I?,” published in the  August 2015 issue.   See also our August 2015 newsletter, which introduces Sherry's work and research.

Here is author Sherry Watt's response to this question.


Racism is not a surprise. There is a long well-documented history of racial hatred in this country. Even though a recent rash of racial charged incidents (i.e., recently publicized deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers, nine massacred in church in South Carolina, church burnings, the racist chant by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members) evidences an ingrained hatred, racism is masqueraded as an individual problem. These events have prompted protest marches, calls for conversations on race, and pleas for structural change. Yet I notice a similar pattern when these horrific events happen: campus leaders make public statements that rush a return to the status quo, attempt to promote harmony, and try to redirect the blame to an individual racist gone awry.   Does the rush to publically denounce "the racist" without "being" with the complexities of it serve the organization over the individual or community needs? Do these swift actions shield communities from the hard work of personal development and the much-needed collective unpacking of racial socialization? 

Paraphrasing Jon Stewart's  recent opening monologue (The Daily Show, June 18, 2015), as a nation we keep staring into the open, unhealed wound of racism and doing nothing. Frankly, I have higher expectations for college campuses. I want our leaders to guide our students by doing more than an immediate soothing of an open wound. 

We cannot just get rid of the special racist.  Instead, I believe in nurturing an environment where campus community members can face the regular racist inside each of us, within the organization structure, and within our culture.  I ponder:  Do these public denouncements of the "racist" serve to masquerade racism as only an individual problem? In reality, are the actions of campus leaders only serving to protect the organization? How can organizations adjust their practices from crisis management to recognizing the racist that lives in everyone and create opportunities for productive and developmental introductions?

We welcome the opinions of readers on this Critical Conversation. 
(Click to see Critical Conversation #1.)