Oppression and Student Development Theory

I work in student affairs which means I work at a university with college students. People in student affairs study student development theory. These are theories that help explain how college students learn and grow throughout college and beyond. Coming from Miami University, I know most about Marcia Baxter Magolda’s theory and usually relate them to everything in my life.

Marcia’s theory focuses on how people learn. She explains a student’s progression from absolute knowing through contextual knowing. Absolute knowers believe that there is an authority who holds all knowledge. This can be a parent, teacher, faculty member, preacher, politician, or administrator. Students trust the information they receive from these people, no matter how off the wall the information is.

From here they progress through transitional and independent knowing where they begin to question truth and who holds truth. They begin to realize that all knowledge isn’t certain and no authority holds all knowledge. Finally, after years of development, students arrive at contextual knowing. This is when they create truth based on evidence within a specific context. They understand that not all knowledge is equal and sometimes it depends on the situation.

Theories like these are called student development theory because it is based on research on college students. The experiences students have in college help them progress through these stages. These experiences could be a class where the faculty member requires students to challenge the information presented, a roommate who has a different lifestyle, or an administrator who pushes a student’s buttons. Usually, these experiences are unique to a college campus because it is an environment that gathers a diverse population of students to live, work, and learn together. There are not many other environments that can create a similar challenge.

You do not have to go to college to become a contextual knower. However, it is much easier to remain an absolute knower if you do not attend college or if you never have experiences outside of your hometown. So, what does this mean for oppression?

When you are an absolute knower, you believe what an authority tells you. You believe he or she has all knowledge. Think of a child who thinks his parent knows all the answers. Think of the people who go to church who believe their preachers interpretation of the Bible. Think of the freshman who enters her first lecture hall to learn all the knowledge the professor holds. These people expect the authority (teacher, preacher, professor) to know all the answers.

It’s not until you learn something that contradicts what an authority has told you that your development is challenged. This contradiction is what some of us like to call cognitive dissonance. Basically, you believe two opposite truths at the same time. An example of this may be a Christian who believes that homosexuality is wrong, but has a gay roommate who has become her best friend and who she believes should be able to love whoever she wants.

It’s a beautiful thing when this happens! Well, maybe not beautiful for the person experiencing it, but for the student affairs educator, it’s a dream come true!! This is when people open their minds, struggle with some tough questions, and make it through the other side as stronger, more informed people who see the world through different perspectives. What could be better?

So, again, back to the oppression stuff. If you are an absolute knower – you believe there is one truth held by an authority – tread carefully. Consider for a minute the opposite of what your authority is telling you. Could that opposite truth be true? Maybe not, but you should always consider it. Do your research.

Think about the little African American girls in the baby doll study. They were given dolls that were black and white and asked which one was the pretty doll. They always chose the white doll. They did this because of all the messages they were getting in society…through media, education, etc. What if they never considered the opposite truth? What if they never realized how beautiful they were? Challenge the knowledge you hold and break the barriers of truth!

(If you really want to dig deep into this, you can read this article for a little more insight into how the conservative worldview encourages absolute knowing. I’m not convinced it’s about being conservative, but more about having power and wanting to keep it. Not all conservatives are about that.)

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Still Not Convinced Oppression Exists?

The original goal of this blog was to find examples of privilege or oppression in everyday life. My friend Stephen Quaye sent me a link to a story that is the perfect illustration of what I’m trying to preach.

Read this!

Let’s dissect this a minute to illustrate how oppression happens. First, Mr. Ricketts. Really rich white guy who doesn’t like Obama. My guess is that he doesn’t like Obama’s attempt at equalling the playing field for all Americans. People like Mr. Ricketts like to call Obama a socialist because they believe they worked really hard to become successful and they shouldn’t have to use any of their money to contribute to the well-being of the rest of the world. The rest of the world, who by the way, is too lazy to work hard enough to be as successful as them.

Do you know any really rich people? I mean Mr. Ricketts rich? I’m not talking about our friends who worked hard through law or med school and make a decent six figure salary. I’m talking million/billionaires. I don’t know any personally, so I haven’t actually gotten to talk to a real live rich person. But, typically, people who are super rich have been born with some type of privilege. That may have been parents who were already rich; parents who were dedicated to providing them with opportunities; heck, parents in general; good schools; a stable home that was heated in the winter, cooled in the summer. So, to blame all their success on their hard work isn’t entirely true. Recognize not everyone has the same opportunities and cannot get to the same level of success with the same amount of work. It doesn’t happen. Ever. That’s a general premise of privilege.

Richy Ricketts is spewing privilege all over the place and he uses some of his privilege (several million dollars of his privilege) to feed the commoners (that’s you and me and the people we know) propaganda about Obama. Fox News does it everyday. Check it out if you’re brave enough. Most commoners nowadays get their information through the media and do little to check the facts. Who has the time, right? So we start to believe what we hear. We believe Obama isn’t an American, he’s a Black Panther trying to rule the white people, he’s a socialist, he’s Satan, he feeds his dog food made in China and it ruins the economy, he’s giving everyone cancer so they sign up for Obamacare. Why wouldn’t we believe it, it’s on every channel we turn to during every commercial. So we go vote Obama out, who by the way, is committed to advocating for the less privileged.

Now that Obama is out, the Republicans get to take over and, like we saw in NC and across the country, they begin to take away rights, schools lose funding, people lose jobs. When people don’t have educations or jobs they have no resources to fight back. The oppressors keep their power, continue to advance their interests, and the rest of the folks just need to work harder to become successful. Get it?

Not every super rich person has the same intentions as this Ricketts guy. Warren Buffett has expressed his concerns with tax structures. Bill Gates understands inequity and uses much of his fortune to provide opportunities for others. I like to think most people are like Buffett and Gates. But this Rickett character. Watch out. Also look out for the Koch brothers. They control the government more than any politician does.

Mr. Ricketts, before you begin attacking Obama for his ties to Jeremiah Wright, why don’t you have a conversation with Mr. Wright and understand his perspective of being black in America. It would blow your mind! For the rest of you, recognize the propaganda. Understand the cycle of oppression. Really consider how each side of the political arguments will benefit you or others. Fight for those who don’t have as many resources as you. And most of all, stop supporting TD Ameritrade and the Chicago Cubs if you don’t agree with Ricketts’ shady plan (sorry Missy). Obama, stay classy. People see through the theatrics of these clowns!

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Introducing Ms. Anonymous

Because I am so biased, I thought it was important to get another perspective about this oppression stuff. I have this friend who currently has a very conservative faith and job, but at some points in her life she had a pretty liberal faith and job. She’s seen the best and worst at both ends of the spectrum so I asked her to share her perspective as a guest blogger. Because she has friends on both sides of the bias spectrum, she has faced a lot of grief throughout the recent political nightmare in this state. She has a lot to say and this will be her safe place to say it for a little bit. And since NC hasn’t been such a safe place for her lately, we’ll call her Ms. Anonymous. Here she goes:

I’m gonna love you through this, North Carolina.

First, I refuse to accept or believe that the majority of North Carolinian’s voted for Amendment One because they are discriminating against others. I truly believe, as Shari said, that this is because people believe in one specific definition of marriage.

Second, I would like to talk about what the main argument is in this entire debate. Love. Who loves who and loving other people regardless of their personal choices. Take away your point of view and think of it in these simple terms. If this is a debate about love, why is there so much hate towards someone who thinks differently than you do? The problem is there hasn’t been enough education of oppression or even education of a Christian worldview. People think they understand the Christian worldview, but when your commercials just mention the Bible and nothing about accepting others regardless of their choices, it makes your argument weak. Both sides of this argument had a great chance to educate each other about why they think the way they do. But people get tired and bored and frustrated with it. This was the perfect opportunity to plant those seeds in the minds and hearts of those who have never been exposed to a diverse worldview. Unfortunately, it did not happen. I never saw one commercial about LGBT equality. There was a huge focus on other potential ripple effects from Amendment One – like children’s healthcare and domestic violence laws, etc. Why did this happen?

Is North Carolina really that scary of a place for people to start these conversations? This state voted for Obama. This state can never make up its mind politically because party lines really don’t exist here. What DOES exist, overwhelmingly, is individual thought. Voters here aren’t dumb – they can make up their minds if they’re given enough information. Whoever ran the “against” campaign did a huge disservice to LGBT individuals and to the country by not bringing LGBT issues to the forefront of the argument. Civil rights in the 50’s and 60’s weren’t understood until people stood up and fought for them. The same will continue to be true of LGBT rights. This was a perfect opportunity for a true conversation to begin!

Back to love. How do we teach others about these issues if we can’t love them? People are taught best when taught with love. Keep this in mind when discussing these issues. Hateful language does nothing but anger others. Even if the language of Amendment One is hateful, some people don’t realize that and won’t until they have a slow and intentional conversation. Things won’t change in just one conversation, so until then, you’ve gotta love them through it. Slow and steady wins the race.

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Oppressing the Oppressors

The division that Amendment 1 caused in North Carolina is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Nothing good has come out of this decision. It’s caused hate to ripple through the state, it has divided neighbors, it has made people defend their faith, it has denied people’s rights.

Here’s what makes me really sad. Most of the people who voted for this Amendment didn’t do it because they hate gay people or because they wanted to deny anyone rights or because they think they are better than others and deserve more rights. They did it because their entire lives they’ve gone to church where they’ve been told if they don’t follow a strict set of rules they are going to hell. They’ve been controlled by this worldview since they were born. They believe what they’ve been told. Why shouldn’t they?

They were taught that marriage is between one man and one woman. That is God’s law and homosexuality is a sin. If they voted against the Amendment, they would be going against and disappointing God. They could go to hell for that. They have been taught that nothing comes before God. Not their family, not their friends, and certainly not the rights of people they’ve never met.

These are people who are just trying to live their lives in line with their religion. And then the politicians stepped in. They knew these people existed. They knew that North Carolina was full of people who were committed to their faith. They knew that the LGBT community was gaining more rights across the country and that wasn’t going to happen in their state. They weren’t going to be the only state in the southeast who didn’t write discrimination into their Constitution. How else were they going to keep their privilege and power? So, they created Amendment 1 and preyed on the people of faith. They preached in the churches and through the media that is was essential to preserve marriage between one man and one woman in the name of Jesus.

There are certainly oppressors in this state, but it’s not the religious folks sitting in the pews. They’re just trying to follow the rules their preachers are teaching them. Many of the people who voted for the Amendment are facing oppression just like the communities we’re fighting for. The people they trust are using them to further their agendas. Let’s stop looking at the 61% like they are villains and realize that only about 10% of them are the knuckleheads oppressing everyone. You can decide what you want to do about that, but don’t fall for their tricks again.

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What’s Privilege Got To Do With It?

A few days ago, I posted a list of privileges I have. Some of you may be wondering what that has to do with anything. Glad you asked. Let’s examine a privilege more closely.

Let’s talk about the fact that I got pregnant easily two times. This is a privilege because not everyone has an easy pregnancy story and our culture makes some assumptions about pregnancy. These include: everyone wants to have children, everyone can have children if they try, it’s a blessing to be pregnant. What else can you think of?

For me, these assumptions were true so my pregnancy experience was very easy. I controlled when I got pregnant, who I got pregnant by, how many times I got pregnant, in what circumstances I got pregnant. I was never asked any awkward questions like, “Are you going to keep it?” “Who’s the dad?” “When are you going to have babies?” The control piece is very important here. Some people have no control of their pregnancy experience: some people are raped, some people try and cannot get pregnant, some people get pregnant and lose their baby, some people have no access to birth control and have unwanted pregnancies, some people have never been educated about sex and get pregnant.

Understanding the diverse experiences of pregnancy is critical. It can be very easy for those of us who have had control of our pregnancies to impose societal assumptions on everyone. This gets dangerous when talking about oppression. If you look around in politics right now, you can easily find legislation or debates happening about women’s reproductive rights whether it’s people not wanting their tax dollars to fund Planned Parenthood, others trying to make abortions more difficult than they are, churches not wanting to provide their staff with access to birth control. There have also been conversations about how many embryos parents should be able to use during fertility treatments.

You may believe whatever you would like about any of these issues. However, it’s important for those of us who have had a privileged reproductive experience to consider that not all women have it as easy as us. It’s easy for me to say, “I would NEVER have an abortion,” or “I can’t believe those parents would put all their children at risk by inserting 5 embryos.” However, I wasn’t a 15 year girl who had no support from my family to raise a baby. I never yearned for the baby could not have on my own. Even though I never had those experiences, I need to recognize that they do happen and I cannot understand what it would be like to be in those situations. I need to recognize that if I were in those circumstances I would want to make my own decision without my government or other people interfering.

I do not have to sacrifice my values to let others live by theirs. If we’re going to buy into connectedness, we are going to have to take care of each other as we let each other make our own decisions. We must be aware of the things that are happening in our communities, in our government, in our country that are trying to impose values on others based on a cultural, religious, or personal belief/privilege. That’s oppression. When we recognize our privilege and examine how it affects others, we can beat oppression.

Where have you seen this happening in your life, community, or country?

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Well Played Mr. Obama, Well Played

There’s a reason why, no matter what, I will always love Obama….(drum roll please)….. he’s black….oh, and liberal. How dare I, right? But, here’s the things. If you’re black, you have faced outward discrimination at some point in your life. You know what it feels like to be oppressed. You can see things about the world that white people can’t. Yes, I know he also swims in privilege, but being black in America holds a lot of power in terms of perspective. This is the type of person I need in my fight against oppression.

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, on the day after the Amendment 1 fiasco, Obama came out in support of gay marriage. As many of us were sorting out our negative feelings about the Amendment, Obama was our beacon of hope. He talked briefly about what people are calling his “evolution” with gay marriage. Who knows where he started in this evolution; at some point he thought civil unions were sufficient. (Politically that was probably to try to please both sides.) Then, you know what happened? He had genuine engaging conversations with gay people!! And now he believes that same sex couples should be able to be married.

Those genuine engaging conversations are what I think will be the only thing that wins this battle. What I have learned from conversations with some people who do not support homosexuality is that they don’t have any relationships with people who are gay. They certainly know gay people, but some don’t know they know gay people and others just don’t think it’s polite to have conversations with them about being gay. Here are things I hear over and over again from people who have never talked to a gay person about being gay: being gay is a choice; homosexuality is a sin and just like your temptations to murder someone, you must resist your homosexual temptations; I don’t have a problem with gay people, I just think homosexuality is wrong. Additionally, there are always overtones that being gay is just about having sex with someone of the same sex. I don’t ever recall a conversation that focused on the love between two people in a committed relationship.

In case you haven’t met me, I’m not afraid to have conversations. When I meet gay people, I am always really interested in their experiences. I become friends with them and while building our friendship we share our experiences, we ask each other questions about our experiences, and we learn. Sounds similar to Obama’s story. Here are some things that I think both Obama and I have learned through our relationships: being gay is undeniably not a choice; I get a lot of rights with my marriage that are essential to protecting my family; all relationships are about love and love is not a sin; everyone just wants to be happy; people who are gay are so normal it would blow your mind.

If more people were exposed to the conversations and relationships both Obama and I have had the privilege of having, we would not be fighting for LGBT rights. When I looked at the map of North Carolina that indicated the percentage of people who do not have a bachelor’s degree, a huge majority of the state did not. The problem with this isn’t necessarily the lack of education, but the lack of exposure to “the other.” How do we expose people to people different than them when they have limited experiences outside of their own hometowns? Obama may be the only person some people “know” that supports gay marriage. Obama gave a face to an advocate. Maybe some people have never seen an advocate before.

But that’s not going to be enough. We’re all going to have to go back to our hometowns and show them what an advocate looks like. Tell them we’ve met real live gay people and they are terrifyingly normal and they didn’t turn us gay (or whatever other outlandish ideas are out there). Tell them about the struggles our friends are facing due to oppression and how we can help. Tell them about our friends who don’t have equal rights to their child’s custody because of state laws. Tell them about our friends who cannot even adopt children because of state laws. Tell them about our friends who don’t get to visit their partners in the hospital because they’re not “immediate family.” Tell them about our friends who don’t get to make end of life decisions for their partners. Tell them about our friends who were denied a marriage license. Tell them about our friends who have been in committed relationships for over 20 years and will likely not live to see the day when they can legally marry their partners. Tell them about our friends who raise happy, healthy children who grow up to be successful. Tell them about our friends who cried with joy at the announcement of their first grand baby. Tell them about our friends who look forward to 6pm to have dinner with the person they love the most. Tell the about our friends who enjoy going to the movies with their partner on Friday night. Tell them. Tell them it’s okay. Tell them these are just people who want and are entitled to live and love the same way you and I do.

Thank you Barak for telling them.

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Make the Connection

I got a big lesson in connectedness today. Part of my own faith is that we’re all connected and we impact each other in ways we may never know. Kinda like the butterfly flapping his wings that makes the elephant sneeze.

I was having a conversation with a friend who is very committed to his Christian faith. He shared with me how people’s comments on facebook really hurt his feelings. Although I’m not one for subtleties, I knew I was included in the “people” he was referring to. I apologized and we had a really great conversation about all that has happened in the world of oppression this week.

Here’s what I learned. People have done so much damage to each other throughout this election process. The proponents of Amendment 1 double stripped away the rights of the LGBT and unwed heterosexual communities. The proponents of the LGBT community lashed out in anger, disappointment, sadness, hopelessness. I know, I was there. You know, you’ve seen my facebook. In the end, everyone is left with a lot of hurt feelings. I don’t know anyone who is walking away from this election feeling good. Maybe oblivious, but not good.

How easy it is to forget our connectedness. How easy it is to forget that I can do nothing without affecting someone else. How easy it is to forget to be mindful of my effect on other people when I just want to make myself feel better. How easy is it to forget the consequences of my actions (or votes) when I am just trying to be true to my beliefs (religion or social justice).

We have to take care of each other. It is just another reason why we have to continue the fight against oppression.

When have you seen connectedness demonstrated in your life?

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