Talking identity, prejudice and discrimination in class: An open letter to my students

Over the last several years, I’ve started to take a much more critical approach to my pedagogy. I’ve chosen more complex and diverse readings (by more diverse authors), and have made a concerted effort to confront some of life’s more difficult topics head on (though with empathy and sensitivity, of course). It’s not always comfortable, but it’s made my classes so much more meaningful.

This semester, I’m teaching organizational communication at the intro, senior seminar, and grad seminar levels, and in all three classes, we’ve talked about identity, and related prejudice and discrimination throughout the term. Much of the time, I’ve been deeply moved by these conversations. Students have been vulnerable, candid, and especially compelled to make organizations more equitable for themselves and others.

But over the last couple weeks, I have observed a few troubling comments from members of dominant groups that I didn’t know how to address in the moment without shutting down the larger discussion or personally embarrassing people. The comments have stayed with me though and I didn’t want to leave them unmarked. So I followed up with an open letter to all of my classes (copied below). I’m curious how others manage these situations in and out of the classroom…

“Good morning all,

For context: I’m writing this message to all of my classes this semester—Intro to Org Comm, Senior Seminar in Org Comm, and Graduate Seminar in Org Comm.

Throughout this semester, we’ve all discussed many important ideas, theories, and research concepts that are difficult and painful. These materials were not chosen lightly. They are meant to help shed light on systemic inequity, bring difficult experiences/structures out into the open, and help us collectively (and at various levels) process, discuss how to fix them, and consider how to prevent them from continuing in the future. To improve our organizations (and our world), we need to think and live more complexly.

One really important concept that we’ve talked about all semester long is identity, and we’ve recently discussed the dramatic effects of identity-based prejudice and discrimination. For some of us, prejudice and discrimination is related to identity aspects we have control over—relationships we disclose, style choices we can change/hide, where we work, preferences and abilities we can choose whether or not to emphasize. We might occasionally get treated unfairly based on more core aspects of our identity, but it’s not our everyday experience. We have some discretion and a lot of privilege that protects us. For many of us though, prejudice and discrimination is related to identity aspects we cannot change or hide (nor would we want to), and painful, unfair experiences happen all the time.

I am writing this message to emphasize, especially those of us with more privilege based on our gender, race/ethnicity/culture, or ability, that we have a responsibility to be open minded and empathetic to our peers/colleagues. And part of this means not equating our occasional challenges with other people’s life-long or more intense experiences.

I encourage you all, like we’ve done in class all semester, to ask more questions, be willing to deeply listen to others whose experiences are very different from our own, and to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s okay to make mistakes, but be willing to own them and apologize. It’s okay if it feels really awkward. That means growth and change. And that’s how we’ll make our organizations (and world) better.

Take care,
Dr. Malvini Redden

P/S Don’t forget, campus is closed on Monday for Veterans Day. (Thank a Veteran for their service!)

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