Dealing with Difference Institute

Difficult Conversations

One of the most recent ECDP initiatives, the Difficult Conversation Series, focuses on diversity issues people generally find hard to discuss. The program began in September 2011 with Dr. Debra Miretzky, Educational and Interdisciplinary Studies, assuming much of the responsibility for it. It has provided faculty, staff and students with opportunities to talk about some of the issues that often inhibit interaction and cooperation among colleagues and peers who are unfamiliar with each other’s values and perspectives. Since small-group discussions are the heart of the Difficult Conversations, participants are expected to take an active part in each conversation. It is the opportunity to contribute to the conversations that seems to appeal to those who participate.

Though the similarities among humans far outweigh the differences, the differences can short-circuit communication and interaction and make cooperation difficult. Misunderstandings between those of different races/ethnicities or genders can be especially problematic. The United States takes pride in its commitment to equal opportunity and democracy, but struggles related to the status attached to race/ethnicity, gender and other differences are evident and can have a significant impact on the privileges and opportunities individuals can access.

Despite efforts to level the playing field, housing patterns, traditional perspectives, the media’s reliance on stereotypes, and other social factors can undermine attempts to understand one another across cultural lines by limiting opportunities to interact in meaningful ways. The result often is a reluctance to cross those lines because of misinformation or a desire to stay within one’s own comfortable cultural environment. Much can be gained when individuals do cross the lines, however, and the Expanding Cultural Diversity Project initiated the DifCon series with that in mind. Co-sponsors include the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research, the University Diversity Council, and the Office of Student Activities.

Here is the schedule of 2013-2014 Difficult Conversations. Faculty, students, and staff are all welcome to participate.


Difficult Conversations 1 
When Social Networking Gets Nasty: Does Anonymity Encourage Abuse?
Wednesday, September 25, 2013. 3:30-5:00 pm.  Multipurpose/Activity Room, Multicultural Center

This conversation will focus on mediated communication options such as social network sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and texting. Online, some people seem to post just about anything without realizing the full range of the audience that might view their opinions, vents, and rants.  These assumptions can lead to behaviors that many people might avoid in “polite company”: racist or sexist comments, bullying, information or images that used to be considered shameful or embarrassing. What might seem to be acceptable or expected behavior for the audience that we imagine is viewing our posts could turn out to be a big problem for the audience that is actually viewing our posts.

Dr. Bree McEwan of the WIU Communication Department will provide a framework for this Difficult Conversations' small group discussions, addressing the implications of harmful messages and over-sharing on social media. She will help us raise questions about when and why people are more likely to engage in aggressive online behaviors and the ramifications for both senders and receivers of these messages—questions like:  How do we decide what is appropriate to share online? Are we aware of the audiences that might view our online messages?  What can we do when someone else is being hurtful online? How can we consider our own communication with others more thoughtfully?


Difficult Conversations 2
Stereotyping Each Other: Experiencing the Urban/Rural Divide on Campus 
Wednesday, November 6, 2013. 3:30-5:00 pm.  Multipurpose/Activity Room, Multicultural Center 

Participants in this conversation will explore campus climate as the demographics at WIU continue to change to reflect increasing diversity. 

University campuses should offer students a safe space for study and growth, for broadening their perspectives and their circle of friends and peers. Those very opportunities, however, can create tension when students, faculty, and staff are expected to communicate and interact effectively across cultural divides.

Students may pass judgment on other students (or an entire group) based on a single incident; faculty may consciously or unconsciously have different expectations for performance based on stereotypes. If we have been primed to see each other based on media portrayals and hearsay, interactions can be challenging at best and intimidating at worst. Depending on stereotypes can be a lot less work than taking the risk of getting to know others as individuals, however casually.

DifCon participants will look at tensions felt by students on both sides of the urban/rural divide, who bring their personal cultural backgrounds to their campus experiences and interactions—in the classroom and in dorms, dining halls, campus events, and other shared spaces. How different are these experiences? How much of the perceived difference is because of misunderstandings or ignorance on the part of faculty, staff, or other students? Our speakers will talk about their experiences—whether recognizing their own biased assumptions or being on the receiving end of such assumptions—to provide context for the small group discussions.


Difficult Conversations 3
Stereotyping Each Other: Experiencing the Urban/Rural Divide off Campus 
Wednesday, February 5, 2014. 3:30-5:00 pm.  Multipurpose/Activity Room, Multicultural Center

This conversation follows up on the previous DifCon, and focuses on tensions experienced off campus due to racial, ethnic, and other differences.

University towns, ideally, are places where the campus and the surrounding community contribute to each other’s well-being and quality of life. While the “town and gown” divide is well known in many college towns, tensions can intensify when cultural norms and behaviors differ, and opportunities to build connections are limited.

Students in Macomb and the surrounding area may have very different social, cultural, and employment options and experiences off campus, whether among themselves or through interactions with the broader community. Feeling welcome and accepted in a given situation can vary significantly depending on how we see each other and how others see us. How different are students’ experiences in restaurants, bars, stores, or with law enforcement? How much of the difference is based on prejudice, discomfort, or ignorance about cultural differences?  

Several speakers will again provide a context for small group discussions as they talk about their experiences in the Macomb area and the choices they make about the restaurants and bars they patronize, the stores they shop in, and the activities they take part in. Where do students feel welcome, and what contributes to that feeling? How safe do students feel off campus, especially at night, and what contributes to their perceptions? Who stays on campus on the weekends; who leaves—and why? Do students mix better off or on campus, or is there no real difference? These are some of the questions to be explored at this third DifCon.


Difficult Conversation 4
The Challenge of Empathy: Why Is It So Much Easier to Pass Judgment?
Wednesday, March 26, 2014. 3:30-5:00 pm.  Multipurpose/Activity Room, Multicultural Center

The final 2013-2014 DifCon will address the difficulties we all have with putting ourselves in another person’s shoes—especially if those shoes belong to someone who, for example, does not look like us or worship like us or speak the same language as we do.

Sympathy is the recognition of others’ feelings, without sharing them or feeling any sense of connectedness. Defensiveness is “yes, but…”—a response that simultaneously minimizes someone else’s feelings and allows us to feel justified in our reactions. Empathy, on the other hand, is the capacity to recognize and appreciate the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of others. More than that, empathy is a sense as valuable to life as are sight and hearing.

In this conversation participants will discuss the nature of empathy and why it may be easier for many of us to feel sympathetic or defensive, rather than empathic, toward people we believe have little in common with us. The tensions among diverse groups that result in a lack of empathy are often a result of our lack of practice at considering cultural norms outside of our own. It’s easy to decide someone ahead of us in line at the store doesn’t deserve the food stamps she’s using to pay if we don’t know her circumstances. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable and pass judgment on students who are speaking in a different language than English. If we’re being honest, for most of us it’s easier to defend our positions or opinions than to listen to others’.

How do we recognize and develop the quality of empathy. Why might doing so make us not only better people, but more effective at our current and future jobs, relationships, and lives? Is simply knowing someone’s circumstances or norms enough to make us empathic, or is there more to it? What makes it so hard to get past our “knee jerk” reactions? 

Dr. Tracy Knight (Psychology) and Andrea Henderson (Equal Opportunity and Access) will provide context about the nature of empathy and provide examples of some of the conflicts on campus that call for empathy, as a prelude to small group discussions.