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Aug. 25, 2021

Faculty Voice: Ensuring a compassionate community

MSU expert in psychology, empowerment and social justice discusses easing the transition to learning, living and working together on campus.

Kaston Anderson-CarpenterThis August will mark the first time many Spartans will live, work and learn on campus after more than a year of being remote. 

To ease this transition, Kaston Anderson-Carpenter, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Advancing Community Empowerment and Social Justice research lab, offers his expertise about building a welcoming, inclusive environment that allows for meaningful discussions based on civility and mutual respect. 

When it comes to moderating difficult discussions with my students, I have a simple yet poignant philosophy: We can debate ideas, but we don't debate people. 

I always tell my students that my job is not to teach them what to think. It's not in my contract, so I’m not doing it. My job is to teach them how to think. I don't shy away from sensitive conversations and I bring that sentiment into the classroom. Through those conversations, my goal is to teach them how to debate ideas and their merits and to support their positions with evidence.

My first semester at MSU was during the 2016 election cycle. I had to teach my community psychology class the morning after the results came in. Even though I was supposed to be teaching about implementation science that day, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I brought boxes of tissues to class because I knew there was going to be some tears. Some students supported Donald Trump and some supported Hillary Clinton. Needless to say, there were many strong feelings on both sides. As the instructor, my job is to be a facilitator, moderator and supporter to my students.

“I always stress to my students that privilege is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s what we do with our privilege that matters.”
Recent events, such as the police killing of George Floyd, have sparked emotional yet essential national conversations about the role that race and privilege play in American society. 

I always stress to my students that privilege in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s what we do with our privilege that matters. For example, I did not ask to be born a cisgender male or to be given the privileges that come along with being a cisgender male. In my case, a genuine commitment to DEI begins with me assessing and acknowledging those privileges and how they benefit me in society. 

One way I teach about privilege is by bringing my classes outside and having them stand in a big circle. Then, I read off a series of statements, like, ‘I’ve never worried where my next meal would come from’ or ‘Both of my parents have college degrees,’ and if it applies to them, they take one step forward for each statement. By the end of the activity, they can look around and see that privilege is not just about race.

It’s important for all of us to assess our many privileges because there are groups in society who have been marginalized and whose perspectives have been historically dismissed. For the Spartan community, the fact that we are affiliated with MSU is, in and of itself, a privilege.

How do we change a system set up to benefit a small select group to the detriment of everyone else? It helps when we ask ourselves questions like, “How have I benefited from inequitable systems? How can I use my privilege to bring others to the table?” Or “How do I help them build their table?” Again, this is not about attacking people. This is about changing an inequitable system. 

There are some tables where I don’t belong, and I’m okay with that. It’s important to know when it’s time to stay in your lane. But when people from those tables invite me to theirs, it’s a privilege that bears a lot of responsibility. When I navigate spaces and communities that are not my own, I bring all my perspectives with me and do so with cultural humility. I have a habit of telling communities, “I can talk about the science of human behavior all day long. But I’m not an expert in your community or lived experience, and I’ll never be. Therefore I’m here to learn.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to take time to process the racism that I have experienced — both directly and indirectly — through my life as a Black American and an academic. 

When I was in elementary school more than 30 years ago, I remember being called racial slurs. When I graduated from high school, I was one of two Black honors students in a graduating class of over 300 people. In my first master’s and PhD programs, I was the only black man and the first to earn a PhD in my program. Throughout my academic career, I have had to navigate spaces while being “the only” or one of a handful of individuals who looked like me. In each of those instances, I experienced being discounted or dismissed because I’m Black.

Some of my peers may not understand this, but I’m always concerned that I will be another statistic when driving to or from work. It’s always at the forefront of my mind; every time I make it home or make it to the faculty parking lot, I always whisper a prayer of thanks that I made it there safely and was not pulled over and shot. Even when I’m out shopping, I have the concern that I will be racially profiled. 
“We cannot have inclusion or equity without justice.”

In my professional life, I’m worried that my work will not be taken as seriously and that I won’t be seen for my gifts, talents and purpose. It’s hard to divorce myself from that when I’ve seen it play out so many times in my life. And this is true for a lot of Black people — I’m not unique in my concerns and experiences. 

One way racism may appear in society and on campus is through micro- and macro-aggressions. An example of a micro-aggression I’ve encountered a lot in my life is non-Black people telling me, ‘You’re so articulate,’ and my response is, ‘Yes, I should be — I’ve mastered the English language, I speak French and I’m learning Spanish. So yes, I am very articulate.’ Just because I have dark skin doesn’t mean that I cannot construct a grammatically correct sentence. 

I’ve also had people in the public tell me that I am just a ‘diversity hire’ and I’ve had to explain that, no, regardless of what they may see on paper, I bring so much more to the table. The truth is no one can beat me at being me.

Because people have been mainly living in their own bubbles during the pandemic, I believe there may be more micro-aggressions on campus this year. On the other hand, there has been more awareness about social justice issues during the past year, and people are much more attuned to these issues than they were 10 years ago. It’s up to us to continue to create equitable spaces.

Regarding returning to campus, the concept of justice must be included when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in the Spartan community. Justice goes beyond fairness; it requires intentional action to rectify inequities at every level of our community. Justice means lifting up the voices that are often ignored and unheard. 

We cannot have inclusion or equity without justice. Justice empowers us to be inclusive, create diverse spaces, and strive toward equity. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” So if we really want unity and liberty in our society, we have to look at social issues from a historical and cultural lens of justice.

“We all need to understand that we’re coming back to campus with a lot of trauma.”
I firmly believe all students, staff, faculty members and East Lansing residents can build a compassionate Spartan community when everyone returns to campus for the fall semester. 

We all need to understand that we’re coming back to campus with a lot of trauma. All of us are. There is not a person coming back to campus who has not experienced trauma in some way during the past year and a half. So, it’s incumbent upon all of us to lead with compassion, empathy, understanding and love because we are a community. 

Whether we’re faculty, staff or students, we need to give each other grace. And most importantly, we need to give ourselves the gift of grace.
Anderson-Carpenter’s research lab, ACES, researches topics such as the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people worldwide, public health outcomes for Black and Arab Americans, and substance use and mental health outcomes for members of sexual minority communities. 


Activity resources


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Black Lives Matter Principles as an Africentric Approach to Improving Black American Health (Anderson-Carpenter, 2020)

By: Liz Schondelmayer

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