The outrage that came to Southern Methodist University last week after news stories heralded a “racist survey” conducted by the university, is precisely the kind of outrage that led SMU to conduct the survey in the first place.
The survey is only one leg of a seven-year project at SMU to understand why people, even in the age of being “woke,” still have a hard time talking to each other about race, gender and sexuality. In it, people are asked to respond to certain offensive stereotypes. The most prominently reported question was “Why are black people so loud?”
The headlines zeroed in on the questions, and that took the entire project out of context. To Dr. Maria Dixon-Hall, the professor behind the survey, that’s called click-bait, and it runs rampant when the press reports on matters of race and sexuality.
“It shows what a knee-jerk reaction we have,” she says of talking about our differences. “What we do is immediately put up a barrier of, 'I’m offended, don’t talk to me.'”
In a time when companies advertise their diversity, universities talk about their inclusion as a reason future students should attend and the Democratic Party is the party of minorities, people are still glued to their own points of view. And the news coverage over the weekend did little more than reaffirm that this type of work is still needed, Dixon-Hall says.
“When you don’t have information, you create information,” she says. “And that’s how you get stereotypes in the first place.”
To her, this stems from a poor understanding of intersectionality, the academic framework that explores the way a person's various overlapping identities form their worldview. Dixon-Hall says too often today it’s used by many people to assert how oppressed they are. The more “intersections” we have — race, gender, sexuality, class — has become a way to measure how “woke” one is. It’s almost as if there’s some kind of social prize for having the most intersections targeted for discrimination, like it’s an accomplishment when one is oppressed. That’s bad, Dixon-Hall says, because it misses so many nuances about our lives, and it silences other people who don’t have as many “intersections.”
Take the reports about the survey as an example. Some reporters were shocked to learn Dixon-Hall is a black woman. “When they saw that, they didn’t know what to do,” she says. So she had to prove her own blackness to reporters wondering how a black woman could be the one imposing racially charged questions in an academic survey.
“You decided what I am supposed to be,” she says. “What the survey speaks to is that fact that we create these mental shortcuts that don’t tell us the whole story.”
At least one story made note of the fact that SMU’s student body is largely white, further asserting that the survey was racist. That misses yet another point, because it lacks a geographical understanding of the university. As Dixon-Hall points out, roughly 25 percent of the students who attend SMU are Texans, while most of the rest are from California, and others from out of the country. Geography, Dixon-Hall says, shapes people in more profound ways than most people realize. A Navy brat, Dixon-Hall grew up in places across the South, like Nashville and Jacksonville, Florida. She attended the University of Alabama. Klansmen burned a cross in the frontyard of her sorority house. In the South, she says, there is a deeper connection between people of different backgrounds (though not enough, she says, because even in the context of black and white people, people of other backgrounds are left out).
So when it is reported that an expensive private school, made up mostly of white students, in a conservative red state releases a survey with uncomfortable racial questions on it, the ways in which we are similar to each other goes out the window, favoring outrage and click-bait headlines over meaningful conversations.
There were even reporters mad at her for doing the survey, she says. Here, too, Dixon-Hall noticed the gaps in understanding: older reporters, those from the Baby Boom generation or Generation X, were more open to hearing the reasons for the survey, while younger, millennial-generation reporters were most triggered by it.
“Sometimes the camera person would get involved, too, and say, no, I think you’re wrong,” Dixon-Hall says.
Dixon-Hall has been doing this work for a while now. In 2015, she wrote a blog post about the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma, some of whose members were recorded chanting on a video, “There will never be a n—— SAE!” After reading the post, some of the parents of the frat boys reached out to Dixon-Hall, asking her if she’d come talk to their sons.
“You’re the only person who would talk to them,” she recalls one of them saying.
“In a three-day media cycle, they had lost everything, they had been kicked out of school, or they had lost jobs, they lost housing, all for doing something in 10-second video.”
The race-horse coverage of the SAE video ultimately ended in the men getting kicked off campus, but it didn’t really do anything overall in society in terms of shedding light on the worldview that led fraternity members to make the racist video in the first place.
Dixon-Hall says she believes people should be held accountable for their actions — for being a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe — but that doesn’t mean that at least some good can’t come from exploring why people are led to do what they do, and why people believe what they believe.
“Rather than allow people to ask questions, we’ve shut down the conversation,” she says.
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The project will go on. Contrary to some headlines, the university did not take down the survey. The university made it available only to people within SMU, because the social media attention and news media coverage of the survey actually did more harm than good.
“We’ve put it in the back room, because it’s not for you,” Dixon-Hall says of the public. “You want to comment on something that wasn’t for you? It is really to help us do this work.”
The results of the survey will go on to help SMU faculty and staff better educate students on how to relate to each other across racial, sexual and cultural divides.
“What we have decided to do is recognize that we need to be equipped to talk to everybody,” she says. “You have to be real with each other.”