The primary concerns of the United Faculty of Florida are the terms and conditions of employment. Since faculty and professionals at USF have various racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and military backgrounds - to name a few - and since we all have students from these various backgrounds, what affects members of the USF community because of their backgrounds affects all of us.
So in a sense, when shots fired in Charleston ricocheted across the nation, they ricocheted across USF campus as well. We are trying to make USF a welcoming place, both to diverse students and to diverse faculty. In this issue, we look at Charleston, the Confederate flag, and the recruitment and retention problems they represent.
Charleston and the Flag
On June 17, nine people were killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Two days later, CNN reported that the young man arrested for the crime had confessed and said that he did it to foment a race war. Photos of the alleged shooter displaying the Confederate flag, as well as his manifesto all suggested a lone wolf act of terror. Since he hasn't been tried yet, much is uncertain. But coming amidst a stream of hate crimes, half of them racial, the Confederate flag became the issue.
The Confederate flag - or, to be precise, a "rectangularized variant" of the battle flag of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia - has become a symbol of entrenched racism, of resistance against the federal government, of regional or even "redneck" pride, depending on the beholder.
The Confederate flag is a symbol, and symbols used by groups and collectives to express their identity are complicated things. Symbols of collective identity are hot in sociology and anthropology right now, and sociologist David Snow writes that, "A common theme running throughout a segment of the literature is the insistence that collective identity is, at its core, a process rather than a property of social actors." That goes for symbols as well. A constructivist would argue that the Confederate flag has no meaning of its own - it's just an arrangement of red, white, and blue - and that the meaning is in the eye of the beholder. After generations of holders and beholders, the many meanings of a symbol may make it difficult to deal with.
Despite resistance and a few official outliers, the Confederate flag appears to be coming down from official flagpoles from the South Carolina capitol to Hillsborough County. Retiring the flag to museums and private flagpoles is a grand gesture, perhaps one long overdue. Still, if our concern is recruitment and retention, what can we glean from all this?
USF hopes to recruit and retain a diverse community of scholars, so the challenge is welcoming them. That does not mean making them comfortable - part of a teacher's job is to take students out of their comfort zones (as students take us out of our comfort zones) - but it does mean making people welcome.
One problem that has gotten a lot of press recently is the micro-aggression, which are often understood as "... remarks perceived as sexist, racist, or otherwise offensive to a marginalized social group." (Fans of Victorian novels - many featuring social gatekeepers and their unwelcoming tactics - might prefer a broader definition.) While an individual micro-aggression might be at best a passing nuisance, a steady stream of them can be corrosive.
The stiff-upper-lip school might argue that people who surmount such micro-aggressions are in a good position to excel. For that fraction that do surmount the micro-aggressions, that may be true. But there could be a cost: Self-control is physiologically expensive and using it that much can have health consequences. Put together with Academia's recruitment and retention issues, micro-aggressions may be a problem.
One major problem with micro-aggressions is intent. Displaying the Confederate flag might be a micro-aggression, and finding the intention behind the display might determine whether it is a micro-aggression. Here are two cautionary observations.
Habit versus intent. We are creatures of habit. While learning to walk, we consciously learn how to put one foot in front of the other. While learning to play the violin, we consciously learn how to hold the bow. Both of these become unconscious habit after a while. We eat, drive, and even talk without thinking deeply about it (and hence the phenomenon, "did I just say that?"). This "autopilot" model of unconconscious or nonconscious behavior is gaining popularity, along with instruments for finding out what the autopilot is up to.
To paraphrase an old line, if ten people tell you that your autopilot is micro-aggressing, it's time to look under the hood.
Suppose you are told to press the green button and not the red button, you would look for the green button and press it. Your Unconscious can do that. But suppose that what you saw was red and green; at this point your Unconscious needs help, so it takes you a fraction of a second longer. The idea of this implicit association test is to present anomalous options like this, keep track of the time it takes (and the errors), and that tells you how much trouble your Unconscious had.
For example, if you go to Project Implicit and take the test on racial attitudes, you will be presented with a picture and a word to your left and a picture and a word to your right, and a picture or word in the middle. The picture will be of a light-skinned or dark-skinned person, and the word will be either good or bad. As rapidly as you can, associate the picture correctly or the word correctly. Handling pictures and words rapidly is a strain on your Unconscious, and the time it takes - and the number of errors - produces a blunt measure of how much your Unconscious regards dark skin tone as good or bad.
There are similar tests on (your unconscious perception of) capabilities of women, of foreignness of native Americans, of words associated with gays. You can take this exam in the privacy of your own computer, but the daunting aspect of this is ... your Unconscious is doing all this all the time, in class, at faculty meetings, and with family. Something to think about before you tweet.
Misinterpretation. True story. The swastika is a
A constructivist might say that the lesson of this episode is that a symbol's meaning is in the eyes of the beholders. An expert in educational administration might say that the lesson is that panicky decisions can have expensive consequences. However clumsy (and we all can be clumsy occasionally), sometimes it isn't a micro-aggression.
We all have other demands on our time and energy, and this is a complex problem. And if this is a matter of changing habits, people will make mistakes. And if it is any consolation, such proscriptions are not new. Still, to make USF a welcoming place, we can put good intentions into practice.