Residence Life and Diversity: Oil and Water?

“Are you sure you’re in the correct field?”

“Have you thought about going into diversity work?”

“Be careful before you end up on an island!”

“Wow, that is really powerful, maybe we should leave that to the experts in multicultural affairs!”

“You look so professional when your hair is straightened.” 

“You should work at an HBCU, then you won’t have to deal with the racist stuff!” 

These are a sampling of things that I have heard over the 18+ years that I have worked as a staff member in housing and residence life. Let’s start with a little background on me.  During my first two years of undergrad I was the Black friend.  Then, I became the Black RA.  And like so many of us, I was bitten by the Student Affairs bug which meant applying for grad school.  I remember the excitement I felt when I realized that this first generation college student could get a Masters degree for free!  During the process of interviewing for graduate assistantships, I will never forget asking one of the professional staff members to remove the word negro from the paperwork I was being asked to complete.  As a professional staff member, I was placed on the training committee because they needed a person of color.  And for many years I was on recruitment teams because we all know that representation matters!  These events were a part of a pattern of the lack of cultural competency in the field and also my lack of awareness of what I was getting into.  If you have a down/marginalized identity, then I am sure you can relate.  

Early on in my housing journey, I had believed that diversity was a part of the fabric of housing and residence life.  It felt good to be on the recruitment poster, and to feel wanted on multiple committees.  And, we are in the business of providing a home and staff to everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like, so I did not think twice about it.  I have also worked with some amazing humans during my time in the field, so I share this not to point a finger but to share my experiences and allow others to reflect and think about their own.

The more involved I became and the longer I stayed in the field, I found that inclusion, diversity, and equity were buzz words for some, cries to be seen for others, and irrelevant for more than a few.  I saw a lot of folx in leadership, in various organizations, that did not look like me.  I watched folx being pushed out of departments and the field because they were fierce advocates for diversity-related matters. I noticed that when I spoke up to advocate, folx moved away, or I would be coached on how to better “call out” the painful, harmful, or inappropriate behavior that myself or others were being subjected to due to our social identities.  The number of times I have heard of folx being misgendered, seeing the words unprofessional or unapproachable on their performance evaluations, called the name of the other Asian or Black person in the office, not have their voice heard, or sent to the equity office to make a report, again, is far too many.  

I have found that when myself or others voice concerns or complaints, the response is either to be more professional or the doling out of hearty thank yous for creating an educational moment for a colleague.  This binary of “how dare you” or “thank you, I will do better” is not sophisticated nor compassionate enough to deal with matters of livelihood nor identity.  I believe we have been taught for far too long that diversity is someone else’s office or expertise.  Leading me to exclaim that, overwhelmingly, diversity and residence life, as one, still appears immiscible; like oil and water.  

We are in the business of building community, and a community should work to include all of its members.  So, why do we cringe or get uncomfortable when we sit in training sessions about social identities, or when we are asked the diversity question by a candidate?

Because it is uncomfortable and scary!  Everyone wants to do it right or some not at all!  Some folx believe that it is as simple as reading an article, conducting research, or adding an identity-based lounge, but diversity and inclusion is far more than that.  Personally, I look for consistency, whether you are safe and trustworthy, and commitment to action.  It is my hope that diversity and inclusion is a priority in our field; that it no longer be viewed as oil and water!  So, I ask, what will be the emulsifier?  If we truly care about community then we must care about every aspect of each other’s humanity. 

Here are a few questions to ponder that can stir up how housing and inclusion may “mix” in your organization:

  • What are your thoughts on where inclusion, diversity, and social justice lay in the field of Residence Life and Housing?  
  • What training or development opportunities are provided in your department or campus, to further cultural competence?
  • What are some of the barriers to inclusion in your organization?  
  • What are your departmental hiring practices as you think about social identity?  
  • Does your staffing reflect your student population?  
  • What do you look for during your job search or in your current place of employment?

Comments are closed.

Up ↑