[D]espite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US,
accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies.

Paul Gorski, Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education

A split second of awareness kept me from stepping into my apartment’s elevator, the floor covered in vomit, recently.

I thought about this moment yesterday while standing in that same elevator filled with an unpleasant smell as I also noticed a new orange-brown stain on the floor.

A week or so ago, I was unloading two bicycles from my car rack, going up and down the elevator and walking through the enclosed garage of the complex a couple of times. I encountered twice a women with her small dog on a lease, and in both cases, she paused while the dog urinated on a steel beam in the garage.

It isn’t uncommon to see dog droppings scattered down the hallway carpet in this complex either.

Having lived almost four decades in my own homes before becoming an apartment dweller, these experiences are new but not shocking, and they remind me of the general lack of concern for others I experienced in dorm life in college. I also recognize these behaviors are typical of the American character, one grounded in rugged individualism and lacking any real sense of community.

It is the trash carelessly tossed out of car windows or dropped on the sidewalk.

It is the “I got mine so you get yours!” ethos of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

As I stepped out of the elevator yesterday, I was thinking about #TransDayofVisibility and about why people are so antagonistic about diverse sexualities and races, about gender fluidity and transexuality.

A type of awareness for me that helped move me past the bigotry and intolerance of my upbringing was coming to peace with my own self-awareness, being able to articulate that I did not make choices about my gender identification or sexuality but that I came to recognize my gender identification and sexuality.

To be blunt, I cannot fathom denying other people that recognition because I want my awareness to be honored. I also had to come to terms with differences being simply different and having nothing to do with right or wrong, or normal or abnormal.

What is “right” or “normal” for me is not in any way a template or commentary on anyone else, and vice versa.

While this may not be uniquely American, it is certainly true of Americans that we have a fatal lack of community and empathy.

And that “we” is statistically white Americans who exist in a sort of fear that if the “normal” white America has constructed isn’t the only way of being then maybe it isn’t “right.”

Rugged individualism is a significant part of the enduring presence of racism, sexism, homo-/trans-phobia, and all sorts of bigotry in the U.S.

But the negative consequences of rugged individualism are more than the narcissism inherent in racism and other types of bigotry (the provincialism that leads a person to see themselves as “right” and “normal” and people unlike them as “Other”).

What may be worse is that a society that centers the individual maintains inequity even when trying to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) if the centering remains.

I have been involved in DEI initiatives at my university for many years, and since I actively incorporate anti-racism/anti-bias elements in my scholarly and public work, I find myself regularly confronting the misguided “good intentions” of my colleagues, my progressive white colleagues.

My first rude awakening about DEI in colleges and universities came early on when I discovered that my department and DEI structures across campus used the strongly debunked “framework of poverty” promoted by Ruby Payne.

Payne’s work is steeped in racist and classist stereotyping, and it suffers from the centering of whiteness and an idealized middle-class “normal.” When I challenged using Payne’s workbooks, I also encountered the other level of centering: “But it works,” I was told, “with our population of students.”

“Our population of students” happens to privileged and white.

Almost twenty years later, I faced the same situation and same justification again.

An event was held for students examining the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. The featured speaker was a former white nationalist. When I raised concerns about centering a former white nationalist, I heard the exact same justification I heard in my first weeks of coming to my university—but our (white) students.

What if we created opportunities for growth in DEI by centering those people experiencing the unfair weight of inequity? What if we considered a Black student sitting in the audience while a former white nationalist was given center stage and honored as an authority?

If we were organizing an event on sexual assault would we invite a former rapist to speak to that audience? If not, I imagine some of that decision is grounded in considering those people who have experienced sexual assault.

I included the central point from Gorski above this blog because I am disheartened by DEI efforts; I am witnessing Gorski’s recognition that “good intentions” often still perpetuate inequity by refusing to confront it, not resisting the urge to center whiteness and privilege.

While I no longer see Payne’s materials around campus, many still eagerly guide students through poverty simulations, poverty tours, and “pretend to be a minority” activities; these are all dehumanizing and offensive approaches that are grounded in stereotyping while continuing to center the sensibilities of the “normalized” group.

No one needs to pretend to be poor or minoritized is they are willing and eager to listen to people with lived experiences in poverty or being a minority.

Days ago I avoided stepping into that elevator because I was looking beyond myself instead of assuming the world was centered on me.

That elevator would have been clean and safe to enter, however, if everyone else lived with a sense of community and empathy.