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November 2014

 

Bias: A necessary conversation
Cynthia Eaton

 

Bias, a video created by the SCCC Media Production department, is available for faculty and staff use in classes, student clubs and organizations and in our communities. The video is accompanied by a discussion guide for faculty use.

“These are our students calling for this conversation.”

Gayle Sheridan, professor of media services, and Joan Wozniak, professional assistant, created a 21-minute video, Bias, available on the SCCC Media Production website, which served as the conversation starter for their October 24 Professional Development Series workshop.

One of the students calling for increased dialogue about bias is Carlos. The only student who didn’t wish to be seen on screen, Carlos explains how the November 8, 2008, hate-crime murder of Marcelo Lucero by a group of seven teenage boys in Patchogue impacted him. “It didn’t surprise me at all. …It made me think it could have been me,’” Carlos says, because he also had been attacked by a group of teenagers. They hit him with their car, he says, then “pulled out baseball bats and beat me up.” He still feels the effects of his injuries, which included the loss of two teeth. “One of them put his feet on my mouth and said, ‘You should go back to where you belong, dirty Mexican.’”

The video juxtaposes hate-crime photographs such as a large swastika painted on a cul de sac, KKK shots, and anti-gay and anti-immigrant protesters—most of which were taken in Suffolk County—with interviews of SCCC students who relate instances of bias they’ve experienced. The students reflect on how it made them feel and talk through what might help people move beyond their biases.

Afterwards, Sheridan and Wozniak invited participants to share their immediate reactions to the video, then asked, “Does this video make you feel hopeful or hopeless?”

Reactions were mixed. Some participants said it’s depressing to hear what our own students are going through. While Americans commonly note our country’s progress, this video is a reminder that bias isn’t a thing of the past. Some spoke of the difficulty in changing people’s mindsets.

Doing so seems especially challenging in Suffolk County. In a 2011 report prepared for Brown University’s US2010 project, John Logan and Brian Stults identify the Nassau-Suffolk region as the 10th highest level of segregation among the 50 metropolitan U.S. regions with the largest black populations in 2010.

The report measures segregation with a dissimilarity index used by social scientists to compare neighborhoods by race. On a scale of 1 (fully integrated) to 100 (completely segregated), a score of 75 would mean that 75 percent of an individual race would have to move to achieve true integration.

Nassau-Suffolk has a dissimilarity index of 69.2. The national average is 62.7, and scores over 60 are considered regions where “black-white segregation has been most resistant to change.” That said, the index does seem to be slowly improving on Long Island. Logan and Stults’ report indicates that the Nassau-Suffolk dissimilarity index was 76.9 in 1980, 76.4 in 1990, and 73.6 in 2000.

Several workshop participants indicated a hopefulness given conversations about race that have increased since President Obama was elected. One participant said the fact that we now have this video and its discussion guide freely available for use made her more optimistic; clearly the college has put some resources into the development of this video and wants to see it integrated into our classes, student clubs and communities.

As a workshop participant myself, I talked about the need to remain steadfast in our beliefs that things can and will improve. This is what Dr. King taught us in his “I Have a Dream” speech: we must retain the vision of the ideal because without that belief in the ideal we stay mired in the real. When issues of race, class or gender inevitably arise in my literature courses and I speak in idealistic terms about addressing or even eradicating bias, my students protest, “Oh, come on, now you’re just not being realistic.”

“I know,” I smile at them. “That’s the point.” If we give up on the ideal of genuine equality, we risk losing our drive to change our current reality.

One colleague actively working to remind students of this idealism is counselor Malika Batchie-Lockhart. As advisor to the African-American Club on the Ammerman campus, she spoke of her work with students who strike her as similar to the ones interviewed in the Bias video. “We forget that we’re in a special niche here on campus,” she said. “They go home to their various challenges, they feel that bias and discrimination out there, and the next week they come back and talk as a group, and I work to build them back up again.”

"I try to create a safe space," Batchie-Lockhart said, "in my office and at club meetings for students to share what is affecting them at the time. I must remain refreshed on how to stay sensitive enough to respect our students' feelings and guide them. I encourage all students to be independent thinkers and contribute to our society in a positive way."

Talk about positive contributions: Christina Scott, principal stenographer in the Ammerman physical sciences department, is a blond-haired white woman who married a black man in 1970 and knows firsthand the challenges of bias in our culture: she has lived it herself and she sees the issues her children and grandchildren deal with. "There are members of my family who have disowned me for years," she acknowledged during the workshop. While she expressed dismay at this, she remains hopeful about the progress being made in our culture. "My family is mixed," she said, "and I'm hopeful that my grandchildren's families will embrace whatever choices they make."

"We are so fortunate that we work at a school," Scott noted. "Every morning, I come in and I greet everyone—it doesn't matter who you are or what you look like—with a big smile. Early in the semester, some of the students probably think, 'Who is this weird lady?' but soon they start greeting me with a cheerful 'Hello!' too. Every single day, we have the opportunity to be role models."

That sentiment resonated with others in attendance. Sophie Painchaud of the Eastern campus communications department agreed. "We all have an obligation to be mindful of how we communicate with others."

“It begins,” Painchaud asserted, “with ourselves. The way we perceive and communicate with others is highly influenced by how we see ourselves.” It’s essential, she argued, for everybody to engage in a kind of perception self-check, a journey toward self-awareness, so that we can see how we perceive others.

Painchaud finds it a fascinating process. “When you slow down and ask yourself, ‘why do I feel this? what is the root of this bias?’ it’s not so much about looking in a mirror but looking at yourself through a kaleidoscope.”

Sheridan believes we all need the kaleidoscope. “It’s a necessary conversation—no matter your discipline or role at the college,” asserted Sheridan. To faculty who might feel that it’s not necessarily pertinent to their subject matter or that they have too much content to cover, Sheridan suggested, “Faculty might view the video and select a ten-minute segment to show. Then the follow-up conversation might take twenty minutes, so you've only used a half hour of time.”

Wozniak added, "It is important for all of us to hear, see and feel the diverse experiences and perspectives of people who are different from us. I think if each of us does what they can to make the world better, it will be better."

“Most if not all of us," Sheridan concluded, "have been in a position of exclusion. That’s what these students are talking about. We know how it feels. So we can all have these conversations. It’s important to our students, and it should be important to us.”