Dr. Brenda Allen on race and Thinking Under The Influence
By Chris Utterback
Dr. Brenda Allen, a University of Colorado Denver professor, has spent much of her career making people feel at ease. Working with a subject that still has the power to tear open old wounds and bring up feelings of noxious shame—we’re talking, of course, about race—Allen makes her students comfortable by acknowledging her own prejudices and the way they come from thousands of years of subtle conditioning.
Allen graduated from Howard University with a Ph.D in Organizational Communication in 1989. She’s been at UC Denver since 2001, and was made associate vice chancellor for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in August 2012. Her first book, “Difference Matters,” was released in 2004 and has been used in schools all across the country.
Allen recently received the Elizabeth Gee Memorial Lectureship Award at the CU Women Succeeding Symposium. But before that, Allen sat down for an interview in her Lawrence Street Center office, near Denver’s Auraria Campus. Against a bookshelf displaying a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and a placard reading “Got Privilege?” Allen talked about her book, the future of diversity at UCD, and how implicit feedback and prejudice shaped her life.
You’re very upfront about sharing yourself and your personality in Difference Matters. How did you come to that choice, to start these chapters with your stories, to include your stories?
I have learned through teaching and learning, that stories really can be a place of common ground for people. And I think, especially for me as a black woman, to share with my readers and others whom I can offer a story from my own life… those stories indicate how complex the issues are. And those stories indicate that all of us are likely to experience these issues, either as a member of a non-dominant group, or a dominant group. All of us are likely to have been socialized in—you recall my term from the book— TUI, Thinking Under The Influence…
I think people are less likely to see me as someone who’s presenting these concepts, presenting this history to say ‘white people are bad when it comes to race.’ Rather, I’m saying that any one of us is subject to have thoughts that reveal how we’ve been indoctrinated in terms of race. So that’s a long way of saying that I think narrating personal stories, especially those stories that reveal these complexities is a way to get other people to think about their stories. To open up, and not feel as intimidated. And also to feel human. For me to show myself as human… I’m all the more committed to helping us all understand how these thoughts operate. And that having that thought doesn’t make me racist.
You’re a communications professor. How did you decide to become a teacher?
I think because I was a smart little colored girl, that I got the message that where I could go being a smart little colored girl, was either to be a teacher or a nurse. So I know that those messages also play into this. Which even at that level, I would not have imagined I would become a professor, because the message was more along the lines of elementary school [teacher]. Which of course, I value all professions, but… we get scripted, we get messages about where we belong in the world. So I think it’s a combination of my genuine thirst and love of teaching and learning, combined with the feedback, implicit and explicit, about, you know, ‘You’re a smart little colored girl, therefore you should teach.’
So when you’re thinking back on that feedback, do you feel proud that you managed to use that, or do you feel that you’ve been manipulated somehow?
So in addition to me getting feedback about me being smarter, I got feedback that I was math-gifted. And so for a while, I was in advanced math classes in high school. But no one ever encouraged me to pursue that. So I have moments, like today, of wondering ‘Wow, where could I be, if someone had only fully encouraged me to follow this propensity for math…’ And I’m still very much a geek and nerd. Computer-mediated communication was my original area of scholarship….I was also talking with one of the people on my staff, about how what I want for college students is that we expose them to a number of potential career paths, so they can make an informed decision. That it’s not just because you filled in a blank, therefore you should go into this. But more about, ‘here’s an array, here’s the exposure, and we will help you to make that informed decision.’ Though unfortunately by the time we get to college it may be a little late. But still, I have mixed feelings.
So you wrote a book about race—not just about race, but all these controversial social issues—we’re sitting down right now and having a conversation about race. Do you ever get tired of going over the same ground?
I don’t think so… I want us to move beyond a tendency only on race when it comes to issues of diversity, even as that’s such an important point, such an issue. Take for example, most campuses, including UC Denver, and it seems to be the same for Metro State University; we tend to conflate diversity with racial issues. I think it’s justified that we foreground underrepresented racial minorities, because there’s lots of work to do in higher education. And yet, if we do only that, we neglect to think about, for one, the heterogeneity in those groups, in terms of non-dominant groups. So sexuality, socio-economic status, religion, gender, et cetera, and how those intersect with one another. I think we miss that opportunity as well as, if we’re not careful, we are likely to set up polarities. So then it becomes us versus them.
What do you see your mission as, as vice chancellor for Diversity [and Inclusion]?
Fortunately, we have one of the best diversity strategic priorities in our university strategic plan than I’ve seen… It’s a very simple priority of, ‘To foster diversity, university-wide, and to foster a culture of inclusion.’ Then it goes on to have goals that speak to the issues that we’ve talked about. With that in mind, I do feel very positive. I would not have come into the role if I didn’t think there was not an opportunity to optimize what we already have, in terms of who’s our student body. We love to say here at UC Denver, we have the highest number of students of color in a regional institution. And to that, I say, ‘so what?’ What are we doing with that, what are we doing about that? So for me, that’s important