UW’s Ana Mari Cauce is making the most of her interim presidency by taking on inequality and bias.
I want to spend the next few minutes channeling Ana Mari Cauce, interim president of the University of Washington.
Cauce made an important speech Thursday about the need for her institution to put working for fairness, justice and equity at its core, and to start by recognizing where it falls short. If the UW can do that, it will provide a much-needed example for the rest of us.
She was honest and to the point, which is what people who know her would expect. It was so refreshing that I read The Seattle Times story about her speech, then read the transcript, too.
See, I was thinking if you’re in the running for UW president you’d concentrate on proving you can raise money, not raise consciousness, and I should have known better in her case.
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“The past year has been a very difficult one for those of us who view diversity and equity as core values,” she began. And it certainly has been. Cauce said it had been an especially rough year for young black people who saw peers gunned down in the streets. And it has been hard for other groups who have historically experienced oppression.
And she said that people at the UW and in the Northwest like to think of themselves as progressive but often fall short of their ideals. (Think about discipline and opportunity gaps in our schools, de facto neighborhood segregation, class lines that follow racial lines, etc.) She said the UW community can’t fix all the “isms” in society, but it can start by recognizing how it contributes to those problems so it can stop doing that.
Cauce explained that the individual and institutional shortcomings aren’t about the actions of bad people, but rather about all of us being tainted by biases that continue to live in the society that nurtures us.
Because we are so inclined to see racism, sexism and other biases as belonging only to bad people, it’s difficult to recognize them in ourselves, which has to happen for us to deal with them.
She mentioned a national study that found this generation of students “views itself as committed to and comfortable with diversity.” That’s wonderful, but in response to another question, only 45 percent of freshmen said they believed their knowledge of other cultures or races was at least somewhat strong.
Cauce said their generation was raised to believe they could be colorblind, that differences don’t matter anymore. You can’t fix a problem if you can’t see it.
I recently saw another study that found non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different from earlier generations in their attitudes toward black people. They shared most of the same biases as their parents, and to about the same degree. The only exception was interracial dating, which younger people were more likely to see as acceptable.
The thing is that assumptions about the progress we’ve made as a society don’t always match reality, and as Cauce said, “ … We cannot just escape our history and biases by pretending they don’t exist.”
Cauce talked about her own family, immigrants from Cuba who benefited from being highly educated and having light skin. As with all of us, in some ways they were advantaged and in some ways disadvantaged. She talked about the pain of her brother’s death. He took on the Klan as a young man and was killed by them because of his activism and because he had a black wife.
She spoke about her mother’s hurtful rejection when Cauce told her about her partner (and now wife). It took years to heal that rift.
Her experiences as a woman and a Latina further inform her understanding of the ways bias affects people’s lives daily and separates us from one another.
Cauce has put into motion an initiative that will work out how to move forward as individuals and as an institution.
I know many people at the UW who are already on that road, and even some who are leaders in understanding bias and inequality and charting ways to address societal and individual shortcomings.
Cauce is using her position to make that effort part of life for the UW as a whole. I’m looking forward to seeing that take root and to seeing it spread to the larger community.