A toolkit series to guide UMass community members in understanding, interpreting, reflecting on, and responding to findings of the 2021 Campus Climate Survey
Important Ideas: Polarization
When our social networks reflect homophily–the tendency to seek connection with others who are similar to ourselves–one outcome may be polarization. Polarization refers to an ideological divide characterized by binary, “black and white”, “us vs. them” mindsets and behaviors. When individuals do not regularly engage across differences, opportunities to deeply explore, articulate, challenge, or expand one’s existing beliefs may be limited.
While our increasingly global culture, fueled in part by the rise of social media, has created many opportunities for greater connectedness and community building, it can also drive polarization. Some strategies to combat the “us vs. them” divide include practicing perspective taking, identifying shared goals and values across ideological differences, and engaging in intergroup dialogue.
To learn more, check out: What Are the Solutions to Political Polarization
Important Ideas: Coalition
One key strategy for individuals and groups to deepen connection across differences and build collective agency is to create coalitions. Uniting around shared values and common goals allows groups to pool resources and knowledge, build momentum, invite new perspectives, amplify voices, and support feelings of empowerment.
However, as Bernice Johnson Reagon articulated in her 1981 speech on Coalition Politics, it is also crucial to understand the difference between home spaces and coalition spaces–and the vital importance of each. Safety and comfort are often found in affinity spaces where we can be in community with those who share aspects of our identity and experience. These home spaces are where we feel at ease, fill our cups, and honor the individuality among those within an identity group. Home is, by definition, not a place where widespread cultural change should or even could occur.
To meaningfully shift a community culture, connecting across difference and coalition building is crucial. Coalition is where we consciously (temporarily) leave our safe spaces so that we may enter into brave spaces. Brave spaces, by contrast, are characterized by empathy, perspective taking, dialogue, generative conflict, consensus building, compromise, and commitment to collective vision. Successful strategies for cultural change incorporate an intentional balance of both safe and brave spaces, of work and rest.
Important Ideas: What We Know…and What We Don’t
Across all four populations surveyed, participants were more likely to indicate uncertainty about the sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds of their five closest friends than about their races/ethnicities and genders. Some possible explanations for this include…
Visible vs Invisible Identities:
Some social identities, like race or age, may be more visibly apparent and easier to “guess” without being explicitly told. However, we are less likely to accurately ascertain other identities, such as class background, dis/ability, or citizenship status without having deeper discussions.
Assumptions Based on Appearance:
While most survey participants self-reported more certainty about the gender makeup of their social circles than other identity markers, these assumptions may not always be accurate. One’s gender identity – their internal sense of gender – is not necessarily evidenced by or aligned with their gender expression, or how they communicate gender through clothing, speech, and other markers. The only way to know for sure how someone experiences and describes their unique gender is through conversation!
Simply put, dominant cultural norms in the U.S. support the idea that people are cisgender* and heterosexual unless proven otherwise. This is why the concept of “coming out” about one’s LGBTQ+ identity exists! Because many people have not had access to comprehensive, inclusive education about human sexuality, we may shy away from conversations about these aspects of identity. This not only prevents us from more fully knowing those around us, but also serves to uphold inaccurate and inequitable ideas about who is “normal” and who is “other”.
*Cisgender — having an internal sense of gender which is aligned with one’s sex assigned/assumed at birth
Cultural Scripts and Values:
In mainstream U.S. culture, it is often considered rude to openly discuss one’s financial status and class background. Additionally, low-income and working class individuals and communities are often implicitly or overtly blamed for their socioeconomic status, despite numerous historical, ongoing systemic barriers which greatly impact class mobility. Interconnected themes of politeness and shame may help to explain why survey respondents were less likely to be certain about this aspect of their friends’ identity and experience.
As you engage with this data and toolkit, continue to reflect and consider: which other factors could be at play here
Take Action: Reporting Options
It can often be challenging to discern between an incident of mistreatment, an expression of outright bias, or a hurtful misunderstanding. What will always be clear, however, is how the situation makes us feel – and its very real impact on whether or not we feel accepted, supported, and valued. One way to take action when you experience or observe this type of occurrence is to submit a bias incident report. Reports not only allow UMass to offer resources and support to those directly involved, but also help to identify community-wide patterns and growth areas.