Decoding Difference: How We Treat “Others” Examining the Effects of Marginalizing Those Viewed as Different

Decoding Difference: How We Treat “Others” Examining the Effects of Marginalizing Those Viewed as Different

Lisa Sechrest-Ehrhardt (University of the District of Columbia, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3843-1.ch006
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Race, ethnicity, and gender issues have always been important matters in American politics. However, during the past two presidential elections these issues were the vanguard topics displayed on centerstage. The United Sates has a tainted history with respects to certain populations which it has discriminated against and marginalized throughout the country's history, and the tensions surrounding these issues erupted like a volcano. The United States became polarized as people began to align with different political and social ideologies depicting how those who are regarded as being different, “others”, should be treated. This chapter provides a brief history of marginalized populations in the United States and uses Critical Race Theory and self-awareness as means to help the reader understand the impact on society when racism and inequality are woven into the fabric of the country.
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During my thirty years of facilitating diversity training workshops, I have accumulated numerous teachable moments that often served as case examples in subsequent training sessions and workshops. These moments occurred during the workshop, but many occurred during the workshop breaks or after the workshop was complete. Due to the nature of the inquiries or “challenges”, I think it is safe to say that much of what I facilitated and encouraged the group to discuss often strikes a nerve. I am always interested to engage with people who want to know more or who want me to “clear up” the information that I shared. However, I am more curious and intrigued as to how people find indirect ways to inform me that they are “not racist” yet they were troubled about what I stated regarding race. Some participants became angry with me while others appeared to be struggling with what I attribute, in part, to misdirected anger.

One of my diversity workshop goals is to create a safe haven where participants can engage in meaningful and purposive dialog to heighten their self-awareness regarding race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, and ability dynamics. While workshops may be geared to address specific needs of an organization, group or community, several workshops and trainings address the broader issue of inequity and social injustice in our society. At the beginning of each workshop, I introduce myself, highlight my professional experience as a diversity trainer, and inform participants that my approach does not include “talking at” them, but instead help them engage in interactive discourse to support the initiation of their journey towards self-awareness and discovery, while simultaneously learning the nuances of diversity or more specifically, differences between and among people from different backgrounds. My perspective is that many of us are clueless of our own perspectives regarding “others”. Depending on one’s self-perceptions of privilege, one can venture through life not having to consider anything outside of their worldview. Having a dominant status by being born into a certain race, sex, social class, or ability provides those individuals with a protective bubble that affords them the luxury of not having to understand how “others” navigate life in the social context. The part of my workshops that often makes participants uncomfortable is when discussions and role playing regarding social privilege directly addresses the issues of race and racial inequality. Nonverbal behavior of participants clues me into an awareness that the topic of race is uncomfortable, unsettling for many. For example, rolling of eyes, fidgeting in one’s seat, frowning, body tension, and looking around the room to see how others respond are some of the body language mannerisms exhibited during workshops. Occasionally, a workshop participant suggests that “we have come a long way” and that “race relations are much better than they use to be”, additional suggestions indicated that race is “not as important” nor as “much a problem as it used to be”. Some participants believed and advocated that we are moving towards a “post racial society” highlighting the fact that our nation, not once, but twice elected a President that was African-American. Other participants have even stated that they felt “uncomfortable talking about race” and believed that because they were “white” they were at a disadvantage in the workshop. Respectfully, I disagree with many of the participants’ suggestions about race and racial inequality. I strongly believe that discussions regarding race and racial inequality can, and do, trigger strong emotions which many workshop participants as well as many in the larger society attempt to avoid at all costs.

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