How We Can Help

by Maggie Sutton@maggie_sutton

Several weeks ago, I overheard a conversation one of my students was having with another group of students. They were talking about a Historically Black University, and my student described the institution as "Ghetto."  

Now, with everything that has been going on in our country these past few years, the word rang in my ears like an alarm. 

I didn't yet know my student well enough to feel comfortable engaging - do I let it go, or do I say something? I'm still working on building a relationship with them, and I don't want to lose their trust. But ultimately, I made up my mind that I needed to put on my big-girl Advisor Pants and step in.  

The conversation went something like this: 

Me: "I'm curious why you chose to use the word ghetto to d
escribe that school." 
Student: "I dunno, 'cause it is. Have you been there?" 
Me: "Yes, I've been to the area lots of times and have friends who went to school there. I'm still curious to know though... what is it about that school that seems ghetto to you?"
Student: "I don't know, the area around the school I guess..." 

At this point, the student finally catches on to what I'm suggesting, and gets defensive. 

Student: "You're twisting my words and trying to make me sound racist."
Me: "No, friend. I promise - that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm sorry if I'm making you feel that way. Really, I just want to know - why did you choose to use the word ghetto?"
Student: (After a long pause) "Well.... I guess I don't know how else to describe it."
Me: "Well, let's talk about that." 

You see, there are definitely a lot of hateful people in this country, and in our world. Hateful people that no matter what, are never going to change their minds. But, the majority of the problem, I feel, is a lack of understanding. Most of us know the loaded, hateful words, and stay away from them. But my student had never thought about how using the word "ghetto" could be hurtful to someone. I bet that's true for a lot  of people - perhaps the majority of people. 

We as Student Affairs practitioners have all sat through hours of theory, diversity classes, and workshops. I'm willing to bet that your view points have changed a lot from the time you started you classes to the time you walked across the stage and got your Masters degree. We're always learning, but for the most part, we "get it," because of our education. But it had never occurred to my student that the word "ghetto" could mean a lot of different things, and it could be included in that list of "bad" words. No one had ever bothered to share that 
perspective with him. All he needed was someone brave enough to start the conversation.

This is how we can help, Student Affairs professionals. Professors teach their subjects in the classroom, and this is our role in shaping the minds of future generations. It takes courage to engage in something so sensitive and fraught with conflict, but come to the table with an open heart. Even if the student leaves the conversation still confused, you have at least started the thought process in their mind. Good luck, brave ones! 

Student Affairs - the First Years

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