Identifying discrimination part II: The bias of misunderstanding

In an effort to better understand the challenges facing some minority students at University of Oregon, the Emerald interviewed students of color and faculty who have devoted their careers to addressing diversity and inclusion. Some students have used their experiences to reflect on their own biases and have taken steps to change their own behavior. This is the second part of a series coming out this week examining the role of discrimination at UO. The first installment examined the student perspective of being discriminated at UO. This article examines the way bias and misunderstanding affects the UO community.

When University of Oregon graduate Seela Sankey took an international studies class about her own culture, she knew the information the professor was teaching one day was wrong.

The professor was teaching students about female circumcision in Senegal, a country on the West Coast of Africa. Sankey, a Kenyan native and one of two Black students in the class, had spent 12 years rescuing girls from forced marriages and circumcision in Africa, and knew that the information being taught was inaccurate.

Sankey told the professor that what she was teaching was incorrect, and then the professor asked if she would like to teach the class instead. She did. Sankey stepped up to the front of the room and shared her knowledge in the hopes that the class could understand her own perspective, a view that would have been nearly impossible for them to experience.

She added that this ignorance isn’t entirely the students’ or teacher’s fault.

“It’s their background,” Sankey said of the students. “Because of what their mothers told them. It’s because of what their teachers told them. It’s because of what their teachers never taught them.”

“Do not guess. Do not pretend you know. Do not assume.” – Seela Sankey, UO graduate from Kenya

When misunderstanding goes wrong, it can lead to hurtful forms of bias. Some students on campus have found a solution through conversation and an open exchange of culture.

According to ethnic studies professor Daniel Hosang, it’s okay to make mistakes since we have grown up in a deeply racialized society, but the important thing to do, he says, is talk about our differences.

Sankey recognized that some people are uncomfortable or defensive about talking about their identity, but she still wants people to actively question each other.

Sankey said that one of the first steps to having a more understanding community is to learn about each other and be open to conversation. This happens through asking questions, yet the first step is to admit that you don’t know about someone else’s identity.

“Do not guess. Do not pretend you know. Do not assume,” she said. This behavior is the beginning of what she called cultural humility, a term experts have used to describe the process someone takes to get to know others who they can’t relate to on a cultural level.

“The one thing we all have in common as a human population regardless of geography is our differences. … And it’s a very good thing. Even if it terrorizes you, it’s a very good thing,” Sankey said. “Because imagine if we were all similar. There would be nothing in this world to be there for. It would just be an existence and not a living.”

The differences she mentions are part of what make her and other students proud of who they are, but for others, these can be a point of tension or cause for discrimination based on stereotypes.

Some of these assumptions are used in what UO law professor Erik Girvan calls implicit bias.

As Girvan puts it, implicit bias is a tendency to automatically categorize the world including each other and ourselves.

“Based on the way that we categorize people and the group in which we categorize them, we make assumptions, draw inferences and make evaluations positive or negative about those people,” Girvan said.

The assumptions are made based on an individual’s past experiences including their interactions with people as well as what the media says about them, and for some students, their past can deeply affect how they view those around them.

“It’s about being willing to hear other people’s perspectives and willing to learn about each other and be curious about each other and to understand why people think the way they do.” – Abigail Leeder, director of Experiential Education and Prevention Initiatives at UO

Awab Al-Rawe, a graduate student from Iraq, experienced implicit bias at UO. A student veteran at UO made racist comments to him as an undergrad, telling Al-Rawe he was worthless and that his home country was destroyed.

“The first impression I had when I saw students in military uniform was I was very uncomfortable,” Al-Rawe said.

When Al-Rawe came from a war zone in the Middle East to UO seven years ago, he had a bias toward students dressed in military uniform. All he has ever known about soldiers is the destruction he witnessed in his home country.

While he was living in Iraq, his family had to stay with friends in Fallujah, Iraq after evacuating Baghdad when Al-Rawe was 13. When he was 16, he fled to Syria as a refugee, first to Zabadani, then to Damascus. Now in the U.S., his past has colored his perception of students with military backgrounds.

Al-Rawe realized that despite his initial feelings, he should give these students a chance. He believes that dialogue can be a route to overcoming prejudice and that conversation with those who are making the assumptions can benefit individuals on both sides of the issue.

Al-Rawe signed up for military science classes with students from the ROTC program and also spent time with more veteran students that he met in his classes focusing on the Middle East and the war in Iraq.

Through dialogue, he reached an understanding with many of the people he would have otherwise felt negatively about. As president of the Arab Student Union, he started working closely with the president of the Veteran and Family Student Association to build stronger bonds between the groups.

“There are student veterans and veterans I’ve known personally who are absolutely amazing people, and we could talk very candidly and honestly about our opinions and we could reach a common point,” Al-Rawe said. “And I have with many of those people.”

Despite his initial bias toward students associated with the military, Al-Rawe’s commitment to broadening his perspective is something many students and faculty agree is essential to building a more inclusive and equitable campus.

Abigail Leeder, director of Experiential Education and Prevention Initiatives at UO, said the biases community members have grown up with make the task of understanding people with different identities much more difficult.

“We’ve all been raised in a culture that isn’t necessarily that respectful to a lot of groups. And so, we’re sort of trying to create a new way to support each other,” Leeder said.

Leeder said that support can take the form of thoughtful communication about topics around identity.

“It’s about being willing to hear other people’s perspectives and willing to learn about each other and be curious about each other and to understand why people think the way they do.”

Students on campus agree with Leeder, including Sankey, who says discussing the topics around identity can be difficult but can help alleviate the biases present on campus.

“What about if instead of being so defensive about it, just be open about it?” she asked. “Let’s talk about it. Let’s inquire. Let’s actually bring it out.”

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Anna Lieberman

Anna Lieberman

Anna is currently a news reporter for the Emerald.