By Christine Spitler
“A four-hour session on gender identity?”
“Another group exercise to discuss racial and ethnic differences and mediation techniques in the event of roommate conflict?”
Wow, this is dramatic . . .
I couldn’t believe the amount of lengthy lectures and learning sessions I had to sit through as part of my training. Show me how to write up an alcohol incident and let’s move on. I can’t believe I had to come back a week early to listen to this. When am I ever going to use this? my mind begged to question.
I completed the full Resident Assistant (RA) training 3 times during my college career—each year very similar to the last. Over the course of those intensive training weeks and required supplemental learning opportunities, I engaged with a core curriculum I respectfully dismissed to irrelevance. Each year I’d sit through sessions as community leaders discussed how to handle conflict through multiple lenses of identity. While not foreign, many of these concepts were new to me. After 14 years of private schooling I was now at a public university discussing identities I had never met before—let alone knew much about. I wasn’t shocked because I knew going to a public school meant crossing paths with those different from me and with people who I didn’t share identical core values. I knew I was no longer in a private Christian school bubble—an environment I had taken comfortable residence within. I knew I’d experience new forms of diversity but I didn’t think that required any level of expertise to understand, and certainly not week-long intensive trainings followed by year-round learning objectives.
Among many lectures and briefings were several interactive learning experiences. One of the most memorable parts of RA training was a 2-day interactive series called “Behind Closed Doors” often shortened to “BCDs”. During BCDs, veteran RAs were tasked with setting up “real life” scenarios in dorm rooms that a new RA would have to physically walk into and resolve. Each year the veteran RAs would be assigned broad conflict-creating plot lines such as illicit drug use, underage drinking, hate crimes, etc., that they would have to act out. Some were comically exaggerated and kind of fun to enact. Most veteran RAs loved having the opportunity to exercise rule-breaking behavior by throwing an obnoxious—albeit fictitious—dorm room party, employing improvised alcohol-driven mannerisms. Although entirely pretend, they were always rooted in very real observational experience. Alcohol, drugs, and theft among other situations driven by implicit rule-breaking behaviors were easy to portray. The afternoons spent portraying interpersonal conflicts rooted in identity, however, were an entirely different story.
It wasn’t easy to create a well-rounded and believable hate crime scenario rooted in sexual orientation identification. Nor was it easy to stage a fictitious roommate-argument-gone-wrong based on conflicting religious beliefs. It was a challenge because most of us veteran RAs didn’t have a lot of experience to draw upon. There was nothing comedic about it and it was an unpredictable scenario that felt as uncomfortable for the performers as we knew it felt for the practicing RA. We took it seriously (because it was literally our job to) but in some way it felt like preparing for a test we weren’t sure we’d ever have to take.
Over the course of my 2 1/2 years as an RA, I handled my fair share of roommate conflicts, compromised codes of conduct, misdemeanors, and obnoxious parties. They all brought their own challenges. While my initial training helped me approach them, it was time and experience that proved to be the better teacher. Knowing that the vast majority of the conflicts I mediated were based on poor decision making though, I struggled to understand why the vast majority of my training days were all about unfamiliar buzzwords like “microaggressions” and understanding “identity spectrums.” I couldn’t reason why we spent 1 hour discussing how to call the University Police in the event of a drug or alcohol citation but 4 hours discussing “Cultural Competency: Part 1.”
Because I did not get it. Back then, I used to sit in those training sessions wondering when we could stop talking about class and racial disparities. Discussing White Privilege used to make my eyes roll. I went to a predominantly white, mid-to-upper class, prestigious college. I didn’t like the attention and energy being spent beating down the identity of the majority. I didn’t like being told I was privileged as if I were presumed to come from a wealthy, wholesome, frivolous background that warranted shame and guilt.
But the truth is—that’s not what they said; that’s what I heard. It was the narrative I chose to finish without granting the space for honest understanding.
I now see the irony in silently demanding a chance to define my own being, to distance myself from a generalization I didn’t feel fit me—a chance that ALL people wish to have, especially the minorities whose collective voice is often tied up fighting for something much more grave.
I used to think my privilege was a badge of dishonor thrust on me by people who didn’t know me. How dare they assume they know where I come from? Or where I’ve been? Or what I’m going through? I used to think it was an unfair presupposition that I deserved the chance to validate or denounce. At the very least I thought it was a spectrum, where I could justly be considered to have “little-to-moderate” privilege, because at least that would sit better with me.
If you’re reading this and laughing—good; my former naivety deserves it. I was wrong. I wasn’t misunderstood; I was misinformed.
Looking back, the greatest threat to me in those sessions wasn’t the inarguable label I silently protested, but my defensive reaction to learning something that made me feel the slightest amount of discomfort.
I’m fortunate the conversations I had in training were just the start of my understanding on difficult topics like Privilege and Class and Orientation and an ever-growing list of progressive identities I had yet to learn. My role as an RA was just the starting place to engage in communities completely new to me. Similarly, my classes and my professors provided the environment to safely rumble and dialogue about those differences of opinion and perspective.
It’s now been a few years since I graduated college and hung up my figurative RA hat. While I don’t miss the late nights, the disruptive conflicts, or getting woken up by a resident at 3am to retrieve a cookie sheet from the locked community closet (I said “heck no”, for the record), I am forever thankful it invited me to engage in a ceaseless conversation I didn’t know I needed. And in recent events, I’m learning the amount of work still ahead.
This recent election was tough for many reasons, but it hit me hard because it shed light on the amount of misguided and uninformed apathy across this country and in my community. While I’d be foolish to think I’ve got it all and have fully grasped injustice and privilege and marginalization, I’d be remiss to think getting involved requires a substantiated level of expertise. I have so much yet to learn and understand and I am so grateful to have resources available to me to pursue greater perspective. I don’t always know the best way to interject in difficult conversations, but I know that allowing my internal angry monologue of You don’t get it . . . You don’t get it . . . You. Just. Don’t. Get. It. to dictate how I respond or comment to gross misunderstanding is not the right course of action. I know that civil discourse is possible and I have hopes that it’s not that far away, knowing full well it starts one brave conversation at a time.
Learning my own prejudices and naivety through significant education was a sobering necessity . . . discussing them on a platform that empowers women to use their voice in hopes of new understanding is a privilege I wear with pride.