by Alan Acosta, Associate Dean of Students
Florida State University
Watching the news over the last year has brought me a lot of sadness and pain. I see what I perceive to be various levels of racial and economic inequalities and injustices occurring across the country, particularly within our country’s criminal justice system. These issues not only demonstrate themselves on my TV screen due to the events in Ferguson and Baltimore (two of the many examples that can be cited from the past year), but I unfortunately see consistent examples of what I feel like are racist and discriminatory behaviors in my everyday life as a student affairs professional.
I believe racism continues to be one of the most difficult topics to discuss, not just in higher education, but in our society as a whole. I feel like I understand why – one of the worst labels anyone can be stuck with is being defined as a racist; just ask Donald Sterling. It is a label that can’t be unstuck, repackaged, or forgiven. And I imagine race conversations are hard for others for the same reason they are hard for me: because of the intense, uncontrollable fear of screwing up. I feel like the moment I say something that can be seen as ignorant or dumb, I will be denied the space to learn and grow so I can become a better social justice advocate. That to me is the unfortunate catch-22 of social justice work: it is imperative for me to learn and grow and ask questions so I can fight against systems of inequalities and injustice, but how do I learn when those consistently oppressed are often required to be the teachers? This fear of screwing up and imposing myself on others who are marginalized makes me hesitant to even write this post, but my care for this topic compels me forward.
As a person who identifies as Latino, growing up I was taught to be suspicious of any kind of legal, criminal, or accountability system for fear of being treated inequitably based on my racial identity, which could lead to potentially dire consequences. While I was always taught to respect and cooperate with anyone in a position of authority, including law enforcement and the legal profession, I was always more importantly taught to be careful so that nothing would happen to me. I could be in danger if I didn’t comply.
The fear of danger surrounding my well-being turned me into an extreme rule follower. As an extreme rule follower, I’ve been fortunate to have never been in what is considered any serious trouble. But it seems like there are too many instances of young people of color just like me who are dying or getting severely injured for instances that are not serious trouble either. This distresses me, since people of color can be killed over seemingly innocuous things like being cold and wearing a hoodie. Or being asked not to be roughly handled. Or asking to just be allowed to breathe. Or . . . or . . . or . . .
If I’m seeing all these inequalities and injustices, how many students that I work with everyday see these issues too? Just as important, how many students that I work with don’t see the injustices I see, and how do I help them see it? How does seeing these continuous, overt examples of discrimination form and shape opinions of all forms of authority, including at my campus? I think one of the most vexing issues in conduct work is convincing anyone, not just students of color, I care about their learning and strive with everything inside me to facilitate a fair process. But I continue to be sensitive to the perceptions and attitudes students bring with them to the process. I see it as part of my job to be transparent, explain the process thoroughly, and demonstrate to students how our conduct process can and will be an equitable one.
Once I had a student who I found responsible for a policy violation who came to my office with his decision letter to ask questions. He was struggling with my decision and wanted more information. I did my best to answer his questions, and more than once I emphasized his right to appeal and what the appeals process entailed. Eventually he said something to the effect of “if I appeal, wouldn’t that be bad for you? Why do you keep mentioning it?” I told him that his rights as a student and feeling he got a fair process was more important to me than whether or not my decision was upheld. He was genuinely surprised to hear my response, but appreciated my point of view and my care for him as a student (to the best my memory serves, he did not appeal).
I don’t know nor do I believe I will ever have the right answer for how to perfectly infuse social justice into student conduct work. Lots of methods exist, and the concept of restorative justice in our field continues to grow. But I believe we as a profession, both student conduct particularly and higher education as a whole, must have conversations about race. Continuing to shy away from a conversation about racism and how it may impact the student conduct process allows the fear of having the conversation kill it before it starts.
This conversation is multilayered. I think conduct and higher education professionals need to start talking about racism and social justice issues much more. And I do not mean the conversations where we say social justice is important and is a value and is an essential part of our work. Those conversations are good but only superficially address these complex issues; if these conversations are not followed up on, they can actually minimize the impact of social justice issues on ourselves as professionals and our students. Racism hurts me. Racism impacts me. I experience racism in higher education and outside of it. And I as a professional and as a person of color want and need to talk about that impact so that all professionals can form a community that is inclusive of everyone and exists without systems of isms. And I want and need my White colleagues to join me in the conversation.
I think another important part of the conversation is how racism impacts the work we do with students. We have to have the humility as a profession to acknowledge that racism exists and that our offices may be engaging in unintentionally marginalizing practices. How can we take a critical eye to the processes we have, the practices we engage in, and the way we interact with others to understand what impact our office, staff, and communication has with students, faculty, and staff? It will take all our collective effort and energy to look at our systems and identify how we can be most inclusive.
Social justice is not easy. Creating an inclusive environment is not easy. Ensuring a socially just conduct process is not easy. But it is important for us and our students that we create systems and processes that treat them fairly and equitably, since it is clear that outside of our institutions, this may not happen. I believe that student conduct and higher education can be the example for others. We now need to start doing our real work.
Alan Acosta is Associate Dean of Students at Florida State University. In his previous role, he managed the conduct process for FSU’s housing department. He is also a part-time doctoral student in FSU’s higher education program. He loves spending time with his partner and cat Ninja, sports, movies, pro wrestling, and reading all kinds of books. He strives to learn more about other identities different from his. He can be reached at email@example.com or @alanacosta81 on Twitter. #Latinos #socialjustice