What a failed attempt at empathetic listening looks like for black graduate students at Virginia Tech

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Disclaimer: the segments in bold are my attempts of paraphrasing some of the perspectives of an intense conversation held at a particular student organization’s general body meeting.

Sitting around in a circle doing arts and crafts isn’t going to make our problems go away!

This essentially means the speaker believes if Virginia Tech really wants to do something, it’s going to take more work than a group dedicated to talking about our problems. For others, they’ve been here before. It’s a walk down memory lane and they would rather discuss what the administration did to address previous issues raised before tackling new ones.

This group makes it seem like black students at Virginia Tech have the problem, as if we need support to work through our problems. But the problem is not with us, it’s with the culture at Virginia Tech that makes us feel the way we do.

In other words, Student Affairs should be creating a space to inform the dominant culture on campus of ways to not make underrepresented groups feel marginalized (e.g., training in diversity and inclusion).

We are already having these conversations in our own safe spaces.

I can understand this particular viewpoint; however, I can also see how Student Affairs may have wanted to create a safe space for people who have not already found one of their own. Perhaps due to not being aware of various student organizations on campus or not quite feeling as if they fit in the particular ones they have explored despite their desire to do so. I can relate.

One member’s research focuses on better understanding the experience of African-American students at Virginia Tech, especially those in agriculture-based fields of study. She explores how these students exist within the community in addition to how internal and external mentorship shape their experience and degree progress. She says:

“African American students at PWIs are sometimes faced with the challenge of being classified as a marginalized group. With that marginalization can sometimes result in automatic assumptions made and a generation of stereotypes.”

For this particular person, she believes the flyer was a poor example of outreach because the facilitators assume the problems of its target group by emphasizing particular emotions and experiences, instead of just asking. The board of the flyer reads:

Threat. Emotional wellbeing. Academic stress.

Family issues. Pressure to prove yourself.

Racism. Sociopolitical climate. Pressure to fit in.

Microaggressions. Stereotype threat.

In her research, she learns this is incredibly ineffective.

Furthermore, many of the members did not quite grasp why the facilitators believe “grouping them together” would encourage participation. They questioned if the facilitators knew that African Americans are statistically less likely to seek individual help in regards mental health. How is this any different?

When the previously mentioned member reached out to Student Affairs, they asked her to meet with them to see how they could make the support group more effective. She came to the rest of the members to get feedback. Their responses:

Throw the whole event away.

Dead it.

In other words, they do not want it or feel they need it. We shall see how this all pans out.

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3 thoughts on “What a failed attempt at empathetic listening looks like for black graduate students at Virginia Tech

  1. I’m glad that you shared this. It’s really important that allies listen to the people they claim they want to help. It’s often hard for oppressed people to share with allies without feeling like it’s their job to educate. It’s often the burden on the oppressed to free themselves of their oppression, rather than the burden being on bystanders, allies and those oppressing others to educate themselves on how to stop oppression. While it’s nice that the administration wanted to make a safe space for black students, it’s definitely more important that the administration listen to the community they claim they want to help. If the administration’s goal is actually to help, rather than look like they are helping, then hopefully, should this meeting happen the administration will listen to the people who show up- and hopefully they will think about why, if it’s not well attended, people didn’t show up. The issue of course is if the administration really wants to listen, then why should these students have to go to this support group in this one convenient place for the administration, instead of the administration making efforts to attend events the students themselves coordinated within and for their community? From a logistic standpoint it’s a lot more effort for the administration to try to get out into the community they are concerned about, instead of asking the community to come to them.
    It seemed to me that you were reflecting that some community members felt the flyer was more of a token, than an actual hand extended to the community. The quandary is then, should community members act as if it is an actual attempt to listen to them and attend, and/or share their view point on why they feel its a half hearted or misinformed effort, or should community members reject the burden placed on them and ignore the event and the administration that arranged it? It’s a hard question to answer, but at some point you have to pick your battles. Do you want to ignore the token flyer and what it represents, and focus on other problems? Or do you feel the tokenism needs to be addressed and that you want to be the one to do it? I really struggle with picking my battles, and I often worry that I’m wasting my time and energy speaking up for good causes, but to audiences that don’t care, so I would be just as effective screaming into the wind.
    I wish you the best of luck with picking your battles, and hope that if you or your community wants to address this issue to the administration, that you’re met with actual empathetic listening.

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  2. This post is BOLD and that is important. From an ethical point of view, and knowing history on programming, I would like to see the university follow appropriate trends in meeting the inclusive and diversity goals that have been set for us. Unfortunately, this does not do that. A protocol should always be set and spread to persons that join the groups that look to fulfill the mission.

    Personally, being in the room felt intense! It was raw! Those are the moments that need to be exchanged with groups of other communities. I will express my concerns however, including audience and lack of proactivity. If a more inclusive program was developed, would we be preaching to the choir or informing the opposition. The former is my idea. So, how would an administration that has lacked understanding our POV ensure that the people who need to hear those exchanges hear them. This transfer to company culture, disputes, etc. as well. The second concern – lack of proactivity – is an account of our own reflection. Similar to most cases of unethical actions, how do leaders (e.g. in government and industry) work toward making sure employees submit quality work and avoid having to be reactive?

    Nonetheless, I’m 100% here for ensuring everyone is comfortable in their environment. I hope it pans out to fulfill the ultimate goals of the community and not just the quick comfort of those currently in the space.

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