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Jan. 15, 2021

Faculty voice: Defining relationships and place

Matthew Anderson is an associate professor of accounting and information systems and senior adviser to the dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Broad College of Business. He has an unwavering commitment to education and DEI both within and beyond MSU. He was recently inducted in the Ph.D. Project Hall of Fame recognizing his work on a national level.

The pandemic — despite its horrific impact on people and society — has provided revealing, and sometimes stark, moments for us to ponder, with our analysis often forced by the increased level of general isolation. In particular, a bright spot and area of increased importance and clarity has been the renewed focus on relationships and place: where one belongs.

I have spent the bulk of my life refining and defining relationships and place — pecking orders, as it were.  As a Black man, and, having been born in Mississippi, I learned very early where one stood in the Mississippi pecking order. Place was stated succinctly: “If you’re Black, jump back... If you’re White, you’re all right.” This mantra was well known in communities of color. These statements delineate the dividing lines that are often familiar to people of color and illustrate why people of color must embrace the “diversity tag.”

The relevance of these issues was made more salient to me by a recent event in the news. A Black family (with their dog) had moved into a gated community. Apparently, the dog, a pit bull, was not the type of dog that one should have in such a neighborhood. Further, the family was informed that they did not seem to realize that they had moved into a White neighborhood, and thus had a duty to “act more like Whites.”  This raised several Issues for me including: Who decides when a neighborhood is Black or White? Further, who decides what behavior is Black or White? Indeed, in a practical sense, who defines what is diverse?

These definitions are important in that they often determine one’s relationships and interactions.  Yet, in many cases, as a person of color, there are few, if any, choices. The spaces which one traverses are simply “White.” The upshot is that diversity often is simply an acknowledgment of “difference.” And, being different means choosing, in the face of myriad small assaults on one’s differences, which differences were critical to one’s sense of self. That, in essence, was and is the choice faced by many people of color as they navigate relationships and place. Diversity is at once a societal outcome and a frame for making personal choices.

So how does this relate to the Ph.D. Project? The Ph.D. Project, which has been a critical part of my life, provides both a community and a vehicle for framing issues. The community is key because it permits one’s differences to become similarities. Like-minded individuals with similar lived experiences are able to build relationships, to communicate with others, and to develop a stronger sense of self and place. Community members have a forum for the expression of ideas, as well as a frame for envisioning and exploring the possible. Issues are, or can be, reframed relative to community standards and beliefs. This is critical for survival in the academy.