by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Many colleges and universities have developed Bias Response Teams (BRTs) to address biased actions and statements that students experience on campus. Policies for reporting and responding to bias are subject to scrutiny if they infringe on student free speech rights. However, with appropriate safeguards, BRTs can create awareness and education around the impacts of biased conduct as a means of facilitating a welcoming, inclusive, and safe campus. Their efforts must be non-punitive. One safeguard is separating BRT duties and functions from those of offices with authority to impose consequences, such as institutional equity offices that address overt acts of discrimination and harassment.
However, BRTs can also be perceived as mechanisms for guaranteeing safe environments where students are protected from speech and conduct that makes them uncomfortable. This “coddling” deprives them of learning opportunities we expect from the college experience. Students should be exposed to diverse ideas, learn to reflect on ideas and messages that challenge their thinking, and develop skills and strategies for engaging in challenging discourse and interacting with others with opposing views. As noted by the Foundation for Individuals Rights and Expression, a leading advocate for student free speech rights:
Unless a community member has engaged in conduct unprotected by the First Amendment or academic freedom, any institutional response to bias should avoid uninvited intervention with the speaker and instead focus on providing resources to the reporting student. In doing so, they will help encourage all community members to express themselves and participate in the marketplace of ideas that our nation’s colleges and universities are uniquely suited to provide.
Like other forms of harsh and offensive language, biased statements, messages, and actions hurt. While students may rely on institutional resources like BRTs to report concerns, BRT and other institutional representatives to whom they report should be prepared to support and empower them to respond to these hurts and offenses whenever possible. Let’s consider some strategies for doing this.
Help them understand they have choices. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, recommends that when exposed to injustice, put yourself first and remember “you get to choose your response, even when your choices are hard or limited.” She states that “recognizing those choices, evaluating their costs and benefits, and choosing one of them can help to restore your sense of agency.” There are costs and benefits for speaking out and for staying silent, and no one should feel pressured or judged for their choice to respond or not. Accordingly, when you advise a student expressing concerns about offensive and biased statements, guide them to make their own choices about how or whether to respond, whether to the offending person, through the institution’s BRT process, or by other means. Help the student gain a sense of agency, not harbor feelings of guilt or obligation for taking or not taking a certain action.
Help them reflect constructively on their experiences and not to play the victim. It is natural to feel victimized by hurtful comments, but it is neither true that we are victims nor empowering to play one. As we consider our choices, we may need to take a few steps back and consider what has happened. We must not internalize or personalize hurtful comments, as though we are responsible for them. It can also be helpful to acknowledge the comment both hurt us and made us angry, and that such experiences are common, that anyone would rightfully feel as we do when subjected to hurtful, stupid, and ignorant statements. This helps center the experience, avoid a victim mentality, and more constructively consider our choices and responses. Many conversations will require little more to help students process their concerns and move forward. Most of us are not psychologists, however, and should refer students to appropriate counseling services if their pain and reactions warrant support beyond our capabilities.
Discuss responses they can take to counteract biased messages. It is natural to want to argue back or to respond with our own comments that are strident, judgmental, sarcastic, verbally offensive, or generally negative in some way. Such responses are not helpful and end up playing the game on the offending person’s terms. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program provides resources for responding, such as interrupting comments and behaviors as they arise, questioning the speaker’s statements as a means of causing them to self-reflect, educating about the offensive nature of comments that may have been expressed from ignorance rather than to intentionally hurt, and being the second or third voice to another’s response as a means of “echoing” and supporting them. It is also helpful to develop skills to confront others respectfully through difficult conversations and respond to biased comments from a learner mindset as a means of influencing others. Consider these and other responses to help students identify an approach that is most authentic and effective for them.
Explain what you can and can’t do on their behalf. There are, of course, reasons why a student may not wish to confront the person who has expressed bias. It is one challenge to respond to a peer and quite another to respond to a professor. Depending on the circumstances, we shouldn’t rule out confronting someone with greater power, particularly when circumstances suggest a misunderstanding rather a deliberate attempt to harm. Under any circumstance, students should know about the availability of institutional resources such as BRTs to report concerns. They should be equally advised that the institution, through its representatives, may not always be able to fully address the concern or satisfy the student’s desired outcomes. For example, if the student wants to remain anonymous and circumstances would likely lead to revealing the student’s identity, then little can be done. Students should also be reminded that, unless the behavior extends to conduct that violates policy in other ways, such as discrimination or harassment, any intervention would be advisory and educational to the offender, not punitive and not as a means of infringing on free speech.
Remind them of their own free speech rights and to exercise them. Students often feel offended by comments perceived as biased simply because they represent viewpoints, opinions, and ideas to which they disagree. There is harm caused by how a statement is made, such as expressions deliberately targeted to offend, disrupt, or threaten safety, which may require one form of response. Then there is perceived harm based on legitimate rights to expression, which contribute to the “marketplace of ideas,” no matter how vehemently or poorly expressed. Rather than focus a student on their hurt, we can help them find their own path for expressing ideas in ways that can be heard above the fray and stridency so often associated with discussions about social, cultural, and political issues. I generally encourage approaches that foster dialogue rather than debate. Whatever the method, we should not lose sight of helping students have voice and develop skills for using it.
Disclaimer: HigherEdJobs encourages free discourse and expression of issues while striving for accurate presentation to our audience. A guest opinion serves as an avenue to address and explore important topics, for authors to impart their expertise to our higher education audience and to challenge readers to consider points of view that could be outside of their comfort zone. The viewpoints, beliefs, or opinions expressed in the above piece are those of the author(s) and don’t imply endorsement by HigherEdJobs.