Who I am personally (e.g., the personal identities and roles I assume) and professionally (e.g., the professional identities and roles I assume) exist in complex relationships that influence my values, what I do and how I do it, and how I navigate the various contexts of life. Who I am as a believer in Christ, husband, father, youngest son and brother, United States citizen, Puerto Rican, and an ethnic-racial minority has implications for who I am as a Department Chair, faculty member of a marriage and family therapy training program, community member of a Christian academic institution, and even has implications for my relationships and interactions with students. This becomes even more apparent when thinking about how my identity as an ethnic-racial minority influences the rewards and challenges I face when teaching topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. To understand fully these rewards and challenges, you must first understand a little about me.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she immigrated to Washington State from Puerto Rico in 1982. Born and raised in Washington State, I acculturated to western culture at a faster rate than my single mother did. This meant that growing up, I always spoke English and was often spoken to in Spanish, especially when I was in trouble. We would often eat arroz con pollo (i.e., rice with chicken) and there were times when I was successful in talking my mother into taking us to McDonalds. Even as we navigated the blending of two cultures, my mother instilled in me her deep sense of compassion for others and passion for justice. She would always tell me, “Peter, do not ever forget where you come from.”
Today, I continue to pass along these values, practices, and beliefs to my children. I have been married for 14 years to a stunning woman who is of a different race than me and together we have five beautiful biracial children. We live in a middle class and diverse neighborhood and have attended a multicultural church for several years.
Professionally, it has been six years since I have graduated with my Ph.D. from Florida State University, and I have been a faculty member at Seattle Pacific University for five of those years. I am an assistant professor and recently transitioned into the department chair role. One of my visions for our program is to establish our multicultural training as a distinctive. At Seattle Pacific University, I have also served on my school’s diversity committee and continue to serve on a cross campus advisory council on diversity and reconciliation.
Rewards of Teaching a DEI Course
Hopefully you get the sense that topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are intricately woven into who I am personally and professionally. As an ethnic-racial minority, ethnicity and race are always relevant and at play within my life, influencing how I understand the many contexts in which my life is embedded and my relationships within these contexts. As such, my ethic-racial identity has an influence on every course that I teach and the relationships I have with students; this can be at times most apparent in the DEI course I teach to second year marriage and family therapy graduate students. This course aims to increase students’ understanding and appreciation of sociocultural differences and the dynamics of oppression among individuals, groups, and families, and the impact such differences have on the theory and clinical practice of marriage and family therapy. Importantly, this course aims to have students first come to terms with their own personal cultural identity before targeting their multicultural awareness, sensitivities, and skills.
Being the instructor of a DEI course has been extremely fulfilling for me. This course allows me to engage more fully with who I am and my passions. For instance, being a second-generation immigrant who is highly acculturated lends well to teaching topics related to acculturation and enculturation; being an ethnic-racial minority lends well to teaching about topics related to ideological and structural racism; being a member of a biracial family allows me to speak personally on topics related to working with biracial couples and families.
This course also engages my passions for justice and those who are marginalized, which I now recognize to be rooted in my convictions as a believer and my beliefs in a God of justice and liberation. As a member of a marginalized community and as an ethnic-racial minority who has experienced injustices due to the color of my skin, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know that my work in this course gives voice to previously silenced voices and things that students have no language for, which I can conceptualize as advocacy. I believe that advocating for the poor, those at the margins of society, and those who are suffering under oppressive systems, is consistent with a discipleship that seeks to embody our Savior in practice and is a response to God’s call for establishing God’s kingdom on earth. It also is gratifying to be able to offer this message to students, who often have not received a faith informed perspective on topics of justice and marginalization.
Challenges of Teaching a DEI Course as an Ethnic-Racial Minority
In addition to the rewards received from teaching a multicultural topics course as an ethnic-racial minority, there has also been challenges. It would be challenging for any instructor to facilitate learning and discussion on topics that our students have been socialized not to talk about, such as ethnicity and race. However, as an ethnic-racial minority instructor engaging these topics, I realize that my ethnicity-race opens the door for students who are feeling uncomfortable to dismiss course content as “stuff ethnic-racial minorities are only interested in,” ultimately closing themselves off and protecting their comfort. Having ethnic-racial minority faculty become the sole advocate or champion of diversity across their respected programs only sustains such narratives. Multicultural work becomes the work for ethnic-racial minorities. Because of this, it is important for students to witness and experience how engaging all voices allows for a better understanding of the whole. In our case, we demonstrate how all faculty’s voices together offer a better understanding of human behavior; in a seminary context, how all voices together offer a better understanding of God than any single voice; in a history program, how all voices together offer a more accurate account of history than any single voice. In practice, this recognition should translate into action and have implications for the functioning and culture of an academic department.
An added challenge I have experienced from teaching a DEI course as an ethnic-racial minority instructor pertains to managing responses to moments when I integrate my personal experiences into course content. Because I believe that a student who can see the relevancy and application of knowledge in their lives and the lives of others will be more likely to retain what is learned in class, I often look for ways to integrate my experiences and students’ experiences in course content and discussions. I have come to realize that discussing my experiences as an ethnic-racial minority pushes against expectations for racial comfort that many of my students believe they are entitled to and can trigger a range of defensive moves by students seeking comfort. For instance, when sharing about my experiences of racism, I often have at least one student question the accuracy of my experiences, a microaggression called microinvalidation. This is one example of the types of processes that ethnic-racial minority instructors must manage and guard against from becoming part of one’s classroom culture.
The last challenge that I would like to reflect on is something through which I am still working. As previously mentioned, as an ethnic-racial minority, my ethnicity and race are always at play and relevant to how I understand my experiences. However, when I am constantly engaging topics of ethnicity, race, culture, structural racism, privilege, oppression, power, ideological racism, racial trauma, intersectionality, white fragility, such topics are pushed to the forefront of my mind making me even more sensitive to how these topics show up in my personal and professional lives. In contexts where these topics are everywhere, this can become very overwhelming at times. I imagine this could be the case for any instructor of a DEI course who possess a degree of sociocultural awareness and sensitives, irrespective of the instructor’s ethnicity-race. However, the difference for an ethnic-racial minority instructor is that they are positioned differently in the processes and structures of which are becoming more aware.
I am a strong believer that who you are personally and professionally cannot and should not be divorced. My ethnic-racial minority identity informs and engages my professional roles in meaningful ways, which I imagine will evolve as I continue to grow in my understanding of who I am as an ethnic-racial minority. However, I anticipate always receiving satisfaction and meaning that comes from knowing who I am personally and professionally is engaged in my response to God’s call to discipleship.