We work at the intersection of two industries central to the national conversation on structural racism: higher education and health care. Both are reckoning with historical legacies of exclusion at odds with their stated missions to improve society. Both have collected evidence that their institutions produce disparate outcomes based on race and are sites where people of color experience racism.
At MGH Institute of Health Professions (the MGH Institute), we have recognized the importance of identifying patterns of racism within the institution, naming them, and recommending policies and practices to mitigate them. Our commitment is evidenced by a required orientation activity to ground our community in a common vocabulary about what racism is and how it plays out in students’ and patients’ daily lives. In addition, search committees for faculty positions must include a trained equity advocate whose role in the process is to disrupt bias and recruit the widest possible candidate pool. Furthermore, self-identified faculty of color receive reduced teaching assignments in recognition of the invisible labor they engage in through mentoring and service.
We recognize that even anodyne efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in higher education can produce opposition from members of the dominant group. When higher education institutions attempt structural reforms to level the playing field for those who are marginalized and minoritized in our society, resistance grows. Too often, a realignment of resources can be construed as a loss for people who previously enjoyed a monopoly on advantage. We have learned that while some resistance to anti-racism initiatives is inevitable, higher education leaders can anticipate negative reactions and incorporate strategies to minimize their effects.
Forms of Resistance
We know that introducing conversations about race and racism into academic settings can make White students uncomfortable. They may personalize learning about Whiteness as destabilizing their self-image, rather than seeing flaws in the system. Before publishing her mass market book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo and a colleague wrote about the challenge of teaching race to White undergraduates. They point out that White students may perceive the discussion of racism as an “attack” and people of color with grievances as perpetrators of violence. This defensive posture reinforces the status quo. Other educators have documented that even when White students support the goals of diversity, they object to frequent classroom conversations about racism. In all cases, the end result is to perpetuate the centering of White students’ perspectives.
Higher education leaders should anticipate having ongoing conversations about justice and equity issues with members of their community. One workshop or broadcast email will not be sufficient to secure wide buy-in.
Resistance also appears in critiques of “reverse racism” as learning about racism puts into question the false notion of meritocracy. Psychological studies have demonstrated that when White respondents are primed with information about demographic gains of racial minoritized groups, they are less likely to support diversity initiatives. This zero-sum mentality treats gains for one group as necessarily depriving another group of benefits. Recently, conservative politicians have leveraged the concept of reverse racism to oppose any educational activity based on critical race theory. Legislation in several states forbids teaching that structural racism is embedded in U.S. history. Supporters of these bans consider teaching about racism divisive because it supposedly denigrates one race in favor of another.
At the MGH Institute, rather than avoiding conflict when we anticipate pushback, we account for this resistance and build it into the conversation. The notion of a “safe space” might sound supportive of negotiating different points of view, but it is clear that, when it comes to talking about racism, one person’s safety can mean silencing others. Consequently, we have moved away from the concept of “safe spaces” in favor of “brave spaces” to model the importance of engaging in conversations about social justice no matter how uncomfortable they are. This modeling begins with the development of a common vocabulary. At the start of every semester since 2018, we have welcomed newly matriculated students to the MGH Institute with a program titled “Power, Privilege, and Positionality” to define key anti-racist concepts. The readings, speakers, and reflection sessions emphasize that racism exists on multiple levels and that in higher education we will focus on how we can dismantle structural inequities. Clarifying that racism is not merely about individual prejudice helps minimize charges that any benefit offered to people of color constitutes reverse racism.
Another way to anticipate resistance is to align initiatives with the MGH Institute’s mission. When it comes to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) issues, we emphasize how they are valuable not simply for their own sake, but because they will enable students to become more effective health care professionals. For example, workshop facilitators devote time to asking participants how the particular topic will help them achieve their professional goals. When a group of faculty of color raised the possibility of reducing teaching assignments to account for the uncredited work they do, we sought approval by appealing to the strategic priority to grow faculty research. A literature review showed that faculty of color tend to take on the burden of advising students of color and serving on committees to the detriment of their scholarship. Senior leaders signed on to the proposal when they saw how it could advance the larger goal of increasing scholarly publications.
Higher education leaders should anticipate having ongoing conversations about justice and equity issues with members of their community. One workshop or broadcast email will not be sufficient to secure wide buy-in. We think of anti-racism work as akin to information technology. Universities don’t assume that constituents will need help only in setting up their computers and then never again. They also do not make concessions for people who refuse to use technology. Similarly, a commitment to anti-racism requires continual support and guidance from experts.
For leaders who may wish to explore how to engage in race conversations and promote equity practices on their campuses, we offer the following suggestions, many of which are free or low-cost:
- Join a consortium or professional association that has working groups or guidance on this topic, such as the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. The Racial Equity and Justice Institute is a consortium in Massachusetts that connects colleges to provide technical support and coordinate efforts. This consortium will soon expand to the national level.
- Form groups on your campus to disaggregate and analyze institutional data for the disparate impact of policies. Use the book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk
to guide your conversations.
- Create affinity and caucus groups for faculty, staff, and students of color. Use their perspectives to identify areas of inequity to redress.
- Involve everyone, including White members of the community. While marginalized and minoritized populations should receive targeted support, White-identifying people can also benefit from explicit conversations about Whiteness, engagement in justice and equity education, and participation in implementing equitable policies and practices. All members of the community must play an active role and take ownership of equity efforts.
- Go beyond climate surveys to develop and support an equity plan. A plan with dedicated resources signals seriousness of purpose and provides accountability.
Sometimes when higher education leaders anticipate resistance to an anti-racism initiative, they either water down the project or implement it without broaching a difficult conversation. As a result, initiatives that are focused on supporting marginalized and minoritized communities may be halted so that the status quo is maintained, and White people can continue to feel comfortable. At our institution, we have made it clear that we lead with justice and equity. We use our limited resources to provide ongoing support to the community members most impacted by the pernicious effects of structural racism. At the same time, we focus on capacity building so that there is collective ownership of JEDI initiatives across the organization. We have learned from our affiliated health care institutions that when lives are at stake, the care team must work together to hear opposing points of view and then adopt a single course of action. Higher education may not operate under the same urgency, but advancing equity is no less crucial for fulfilling its mission.●
Kimberly A. Truong, PhD, is chief equity officer at MGH Institute of Health Professions and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She also partners with organizations interested in engaging in JEDI work as part of XEM Consulting Services LLC.
Peter S. Cahn, PhD, is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs and Professor of Health Professions Education at MGH Institute of Health Professions. MGH Institute of Health Professions is a 2017-2021 Health Professions Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipient.
This article was published in our March 2022 issue.