OH HAPPY DAY ...

I grew up in a white, Irish Catholic suburb of Boston. My town was so overwhelmingly Catholic that I saw my same school friends 6 days a week -- Monday through Friday I saw them at school; Sunday I saw them at CCD, a Catholic education program that teaches children about sacraments of the church, biblical readings and how to always feel guilty for bad thoughts and deeds.  

As kids, we always geared up for Christmas and Easter. I'm sure the few Jewish students and the even fewer Atheists at my school somehow managed to get swept right into the mix of Catholic and Christian holidays. But there was one day -- one day -- where everyone seemed to share the same interest. The same background. The same heritage.

 

That day was St. Patrick's Day. A day when, no matter if you were Asian, Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or Italian, you were Irish.

Sure, slight correction. You may not have been suddenly and magically made Irish for the day, but you sure as heck wore green. A sea of children became unrecognizable as the chill of the March landscape became overwhelmed with kelly green, lime green, dark green and white green. If we moved fast enough, our group of children appeared to be wisps of grass blowing in the cold March air.

Everyone wanted to be Irish.

Working at a Catholic college, the ramp up to St. Patrick's Day reaches epic proportions. Though many do share the ethnic Irish heritage, few embrace foundations of the religious meaning of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. Rather than attend church in observance of a holy day of obligation, many go to the local church, the Church of Beer. And, like nearly everything on that day, even the beer is green.  No matter where you go or who you are, you are wished a "Happy Saint Patrick's Day!"

Though my family is not Chinese, we celebrate Chinese New Year. We don't go all out -- we don't close up shop, surround ourselves with family, nor eat until our bellies extend past our knees. Rather, we take key aspects of the tradition and share it with our children. Admittedly, we Google which Lunar New Year it is and which animal sign is associated with that year. We wear red. We clean the house thoroughly the night prior. We sometimes get a new haircut (if we've planned enough in advance). I have a stash of red envelopes in my office drawer that I take out once a year and present to my kids.

 

On that day, I wish everyone I meet a "Happy New Year." Mostly, I get funny looks. Usually, I have a second to explain that it's Lunar New Year. Then, I nearly always get "But, Liza, you're not Chinese."

 

My response: "Recognizing that others celebrate traditions around the world isn't dependent on me being that identity."

 

I'm not being un-authentic. I know that I'm not Chinese. And, I know not to go so far as to offend a cultural tradition that spans thousands of years. I don't pretend to be Chinese nor do I pretend to know more about Lunar New Year than the average person. But I do know that we need to expand our view of who's holidays we celebrate, who's holidays we hear about, and who's holidays we see as weird or strange.

 

I want my children -- my students, my colleagues, my friends, strangers -- to be reminded that our country is made up of many different cultures and traditions. That the beauty of the United States is that people have the freedom to celebrate their faiths and beliefs without persecution. And, of course, we don't always live up to that foundational belief of our country when we deem other people's cultural traditions as "not-American."

 

I recently was having coffee with a Vietnamese friend of mine who said that, earlier, a white woman smiled at her and said, "Happy New Year." Though the exchange was brief and seemed friendly, my friend was pissed off. "Why the heck does she have to assume that I'm Chinese? This whole we-all-look-alike mess has got to end!" she exclaimed. "Girl," I replied. "I kind of give that lady props for even knowing it was Lunar New Year. After all, how many people don't even give a damn right now or who think that celebrating lunar-rabbit-anything is some ancient Chinese secret?"

 

I admit. On Chinese New Year, I wish everyone a "Happy New Year", too. But, it's not because I ignorantly think everyone is Chinese; I do it because I want to honor that we almost never get to celebrate our cultural heritage and most certainly never have it recognized by our fellow Americans. When I wish you a "Happy New Year", it's because we share a community of memory, a shared experience of simply having black hair, almond shaped eyes, and an assumption of what we sound like even before we open our mouths. We share a common experience of being both invisible and being a model of success. We share a common experience of being both loved and hated. We share a common experience of being both motivated and overbearing.

 

While we may never be able to know every cultural holiday nor every cultural tradition, it is important for us to include the diverse perspectives that make up our country and society. So, if I wish you a Happy New Year or Happy Saint Patrick's Day or Happy Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Eid Sa'eed, or Happy Earth Day .. it's because I want you to know that we can respect traditions of others. That, to be a truly inclusive society, we must include the traditions of others.

 

So, happy day to you!

The Golden Rule of Differences

I went to college about 90 minutes from where my parents lived. It was just close enough to visit during special occasions (acapella concerts, award nights, out to dinner, etc) but far enough that you had to plan on visiting. I loved my college, and my parents felt welcomed by my hall mates and friends. During every visit, there came a time when my dad would turn to me and say, "I have to use the bathroom. Can you stand outside?" Let me explain.

I went to a college where every bathroom in the residential spaces was co-ed. Yes, co-ed. There was anywhere between 3-5 toilet stalls and 3-5 shower stalls. That means I went to the bathroom next to a man. I often showered next to a man (in a different stall). I brushed my teeth next to a man. Even though I lived on an all-women's floor my first year, the bathroom was still considered co-ed.

This freaked out my dad. Even though the official college policy stated that it was fine that my dad used the bathroom (and it would have been fine if a woman then entered that bathroom), he couldn't do it. I had to wait outside of the bathroom and ask my hall mates if they could wait until my dad came out. And, because my dad was, again, so uncomfortable by this practice, he usually was only in that bathroom for less than a minute.

It's been over 12 years since I last used (with any frequency) a co-ed bathroom. While I'm pretty sure I am comfortable with the practice, it would probably feel a little strange to me the first few times if I had to be in that environment again. I'd get used to it, of course, but I'd be foolish to say that it wouldn't throw me off the first few times.

The past few weeks, my work life has been consumed with facilitating conversations about differences, respect, civility and inclusion. Along with my colleague, Donna, we've been in classes, hosted dialogue groups, and had conversations with students, faculty, staff, and administrators. While most are open to the conversation, we always get a handful who bring up this point: "Why do we have to talk about differences? Why can't we just treat everyone the same?"

Seems like a decent request, right? I mean, didn't we learn in kindergarten that we should "treat people like we want to be treated"? Golden rule.

At this point in our careers, that question doesn't throw us off anymore. Here is our response:

Golden Rule. Yes, we should treat one another the way we would want to be treated. No doubt.

Differences. Unfortunately, so many of us have been socialized to believe that being different is a bad thing. We need to start embracing that being different -- different from one another -- is a good thing.

The Golden Rule of Differences? Treat me the way you'd want to be treated -- like a person with your own unique personality, character, experience, identity, family, religion, ability, etc. I have a different set of finger prints, a different shade of eye color, a different height, body shape, and shoe size than you. I have a different family structure, favorite food, favorite song, and favorite shampoo brand than you do. I have a different car, size jeans, and number of siblings than you do.  And, all those things say something about me. They don't define me, no. However, they all impact who I am, decisions I make, and how I move around this world.  None of those aspects make me better than you, nor you me. Yet, they make me who I am.

You probably don't want to be just like me. In fact, you'd likely not want to use my pomegranate scented shampoo, drive my beat up old minivan, nor wear uncomfortable heels all day. You probably enjoy the scents you like, the car you drive, and the shoes you wear. So, wouldn't it be odd if I told you I was going to start treating you as if you were "the same as me?" Sounds so simple. Yet, when we substitute those basic interests with words like race, sexual orientation, religion, etc., individuals get tripped up over wanting to just "treat everyone the same."

I agree that we sometimes perpetuate these differences. After all, why should my dad feel strange entering into a public bathroom where there is a woman, especially when the college rules -- and that college's cultural norms -- explicitly say that it is okay? He felt that way because he sees a difference. He grew up socialized that men and women shouldn't share the same public bathroom. In fact, if  a man walks into a women's bathroom in a public space, he likely would have security escort him out of the building (after being detained and questioned).

Differences aren't a bad concept. Differences allow us to find our unique soul mate. They allow us to be attracted to one person over another. They allow us to mix up the genetic pool. In my family's case, differences in genetics have given my children a 50/50 chance of inheriting any combination of genetic mutations. Differences allow us to be interesting, intriguing, and insightful. They allow us to argue, disagree, and reshape our experiences. Calling attention to our differences is only negative if we can't see the value in being different from one another.

My Golden Rule of Differences: Treat others as you would like to be treated; like an individual who can contribute in ways that make our world a better, brighter, and more interesting place to live, learn and grow. Be different. Embrace difference. See the importance of difference. Learn from difference.

POST NOTE: I'm actually a big fan of gender neutral bathrooms for a few reasons: 1) gender neutral bathrooms often have a baby changing table which means my cute husband can't use the "there is no changing table in the men's room!" excuse when baby has a poop-diaper; 2) gender neutral bathrooms means hubby and/or I can take all of the kids into the bathroom (boy/girls) without worrying about comments, and 3) gender neutral bathrooms allow for an option for individuals who identify as transgender to use a bathroom without fear of judgment about their gender identity.

Our first Kente Ceremony

Okay, it wasn't quite a "ceremony" this year. But, next year, we will certainly make it bigger and better! I was just testing out the waters to see who would be into it (and how well it would be received).

In my past few years at the college, I haven't seen any students of color wearing traditional Kente stoles over their graduation robes. I have seen it at the other 5 colleges/universities where I have worked, but never at Stonehill. So, I figured I would test the waters and see how it would go.

I initially put out the invitation to over 40 students of color - only 6 got back to me and said, "yes". So, I ordered 12 thinking MAYBE we would hand out a few more.

As it goes, I handed the 6 out at graduation, and then students of color started to come over and ask if they could wear one. I know next year's class is more "identity active" and will certainly do a more formal ceremony for them.

Why a Kente ceremony? There are a number of reasons for doing a Kente ceremony at a college. Most notable is that students of color, for whatever reasons, have a lower graduation rate than white students - especially at a predominantly white college. The kente ceremony honors their achievement, endurance, and commitment to their futures above the obstacles they have faced in obtaining their degree. Traditionally, the kente is worn a ceremonies and is reserved for such occasions.

Brief history The Kente cloth originates from Ghana, West Africa. It is a visual representation of history, values, beliefs and social code of conduct. Each Kente pattern is significant and unique. The stoles that our graduates wore today had red, gold, green and black colors along with a "key" and an "asante stool." Here is the description of their meaning: Red: signifies the blood shed by our ancestors in their struggles and sacrifices Gold: symbolizes wealth; originally representing the gold of Africa Green: symbolizes growth and life Black: symbolizes maturity, intensity, and spiritual maturity Key: represents education as being the key to success Stool: Leadership

The stoles were offered to all students of color (ALANA) as well as allies. As all civilization began in Africa, and the struggles our students of color face are common between all ALANA populations, it was great to see this symbol of unity in this group.

I am so proud of all the graduates, specifically the students of color!

 

Critical Mass or Culturally Inclusive

Critical Mass or Culturally Inclusive Working at a predominantly white institution (PWI), the conversation of how to increase diversity is at the center of our planning. But, I'm often asked, "What do we do?" In my opinion, there are 2 camps: those who believe that we must do all we can to obtain a critical mass, or a 'magic number' where students of color no longer are marginalized due to their numbers; and there are those who believe we must first create an environment that is welcoming and ready for the group of students (in our case, students of color).

I belong to the second camp... and often advocate for the need to change and transform our current community.

Now, don't get me wrong, I think Stonehill shares characteristics that many colleges our size, location, identity, etc., share. We are not unique. Unfortunately, not at all. We are one of many, many colleges that struggle to diversify the student body, administration and faculty.

I'm often asked to find ways to increase the number of students of color at Stonehill. I do it. But, I do it with hesitation. While I'd love to see more faculty, staff and students of color here, I know what they will face. I know what they're up against.

For the most part, the community is interested in diversity. They welcome the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people. They realize that we are not getting a rich and dynamic conversation without diversity. Diversity is a top priority in our strategic plan, in our office's mission, in the mission inherent in our Catholic identity. While we welcome the opportunity, do we welcome the students?

The "critical mass" camp asserts that we must have more people of color here in order to begin the conversations that will transform our community. That, without a critical mass, students will always feel like "tokens". Without a critical mass, students will always be singled out to speak for the entire community.

As you can tell, I believe that if we bring a critical mass to an environment that isn't culturally inclusive, we're asking for trouble. We can expect even more stereotypes. We can expect even more culturally insensitive comments in classrooms.

I equate this example to the rickety porch at my dad's house - it was built years ago, has been greatly weathered, and lacks sturdy posts. Some of the floor boards have nails sticking out. Back when it was built, that porch was the best spot in the house. We ate on a big picnic table on the porch, hung out with our friends on that porch, and had some of the best conversations out on that porch. Sometime, about 5-7 years ago, we all just stopped going out onto the porch. It began to feel weak. It began to feel unsafe. And, now, no ones goes near it. We are afraid that, if someone steps on it, it will collapse. We are often afraid that it will crumble underneath us. And, while the porch could certainly hold about 2-3 people, we would never even think about putting more than that on there.

The rickety porch, to me, represents a culturally insensitive environment. The group of people is my critical mass. Before I invite a critical mass, or guests to my dad's house, over, I would want to reinforce the community -- reinforce that porch.

Ring in. What are your thoughts? Culturally sensitive environment .... critical mass...?