Diversity In and Out of the Classroom
Professor, Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation
In early September 2006, as then chair of Hofstra's Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation, I attended the annual Provost’s Breakfast, where Provost Berliner presented on the current academic state of the University and the goals for the coming year. At the very end of his presentation, he mentioned that back in May a formal faculty exchange agreement had been signed between Hofstra and Claflin University, a historically black college/university (HBCU) in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and that he would be looking for a faculty member to go there in the spring 2007 semester. No sooner had the provost finished speaking, I dashed over to him, interrupted his conversation, and said: “I would be interested in going to Claflin.” His response was: “Great, send me your vita.” By the middle of November 2007, it was decided that I would be the inaugural Hofstra professor to participate in the exchange with Claflin, and that Annette Grevious, a professor of theatre, speech and drama, would be the first Claflin professor to visit Hofstra as part of the program.
I have often reflected on that September morning when I impulsively manifested interest in going to Claflin. I consider myself a very non-impulsive person, so what could explain this out-of-character behavior? A myriad of possible explanations have passed though my mind. I was a middle-aged man needing a change, I was tired of cold winters, and I wanted to play golf all year around. On a more serious note, my reflection led me to believe there were deep-rooted personal and professional reasons for my impulsive self-nomination.
I enjoyed a history of benefits that resulted from immersing myself in environments where, as a white person, I was either alone or clearly in the minority. As a psychologist devoting his life to helping others gain greater self-awareness, I had come to the conclusion that my own path to greater self-awareness was rooted in two dimensions of my identity: race and gender. There is a lot I do not know about myself, but there is one thing I know with utmost clarity: being white and being male fundamentally define who I am and how I was socialized to view myself and the world around me. While I believed I made great strides in overcoming my sexism, my racism seemed to be much more insidious and difficult to eradicate. If racism can be compared to a cancer, I had come to the conclusion that I would never be cancer-free and that the most I could hope for would be to prevent the cancer from metastasizing and perhaps go into remission. Over the years, one of the best therapies for my cancer was becoming part of non-white environments for an extended period of time. On that September 2006 morning when I heard the call for Claflin, I saw an opportunity for yet another racially diverse experience in my battle against racism and enhancement of my own racial identity.
Professionally, I wanted to go to Claflin because of a teaching, research, and practice career that was dedicated to issues of multiculturalism in counseling and racial identity development. I felt I had the professional resources to teach at an HBCU, talk about my research on issues of race, and perhaps, most importantly, put race on the table by talking about my own “whiteness.” While I had done these things during my teaching career at Hofstra with mostly white students, I wanted to experience the difference of bringing race into the classroom as a white professor in an HBCU.
White Racial Identity Attitude Development
Over the last 20 years, the theoretical basis for my self-reflection, teaching, and research has been Helms’ (1984, 1990, 1995) model of White Racial Identity Attitude Development (WRIAD). Helms proposed models of racial identity to describe an individual’s psychological development in response to his or her socioracial environment. Helms suggested a number of sequential, yet permeable, ego-identity statuses for both blacks and whites. Each status represents a cluster of attitudes, beliefs, and values that affect how an individual perceives the world and influences the way he or she processes information about race (Gushue & Carter, 2000). The sequential ordering of the statuses reflects increasing complexity and flexibility in the processing of racially related information. According to Helms, at any given time, usually one status will predominate, although some characteristics of others may be present. The tasks and challenges of each lower status must be resolved in order to progress to the next. However, in a particular situation, an individual may revert from his or her current predominant status to a lower one. For whites, Helms has proposed two fundamental processes underlying the development of increasingly more complex and integrated racial identity ego statuses: the abandonment of racism (Contact, Disintegration and Reintegration statuses) and the development of a positive white racial identity (Pseudo-Independence, Immersion/Emersion and Autonomy). The content of each of the statuses appears in Table 1 and has been described at length in the literature (e.g., Helms, 1990, 1995; Carter, 1995).
My personal journey toward developing a positive racial identity has taken me in and out of all six statuses. As a university professor, I am quite comfortable being a white person with a predominant status of Pseudo- Independence, where the tendency is to intellectualize issues of race. Forays into the statuses of Immersion-Emersion (the forging of positive white racial identity) and Autonomy (a lived commitment to a non-racist society) have depended, for the most part, on having like-minded people as part of my support system. At a point in my development, I ended making my home in neighborhoods populated by people of color and moved to the predominantly white suburbs where the psychological need to reflect on my whiteness and what it means to myself and those around me is absent. The possibility of going to Claflin would return me to those cherished experiences and environments where I would be confronted with my own whiteness. The black south, albeit for a limited period of time, would replace the white suburb. Oh! How I wanted to go! How I needed to go! I was reminded of a Hofstra graduate student of mine several years ago who had attended racially diverse public schools. She remarked one day in class how troubled she was by the fact that her own children, because of the area in which the family was living, would probably attend predominantly white schools. She was lamenting this fact because her children would not have the same multicultural experience she had in school and how they would be missing out on something so valuable.