At the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, JMU played a training video on social justice for students working in the Office of Student Affairs. Shortly after the video was published on YouTube, Jessica Chasmar, a writer for Fox News, wrote an article criticizing the training for teaching students, saying that the university is teaching its students that “Christians [and] White males are ‘oppressors.’” Chasmar emphasizes how after the training, student employees were told to “‘not share these materials with others,’” hinting at how the university seemed to want to keep this training from the public.
The most problematic part of the training, and the focus of Chasmar’s article, was a chart illustrating who’s privileged and oppressed. The chart shows that males, cis-gender people, those who identify as heterosexual, those who identify as heteromantic and Christians are privileged.
Privilege, according to Vanderbilt University’s handout, “gives advantages, favors, and benefits to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of target groups.” Vanderbilt also defines oppression, characterizing it as “the combination of prejudice and institutional power which creates a system that discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups.” While having privilege doesn’t automatically mean that one is an oppressor, they have the power to become one due to their social status. Additionally, having privilege doesn’t mean that one didn’t work hard, rather that they didn’t have to face obstacles that minorities do.
Angelica Stabile, Fox News’ Digital Production Assistant, interviewed Juliana McGrath, the chairwoman of JMU College Republicans. McGrath said, “DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] training is important, but the way [JMU] went about it was absolutely wrong,” saying that instead of bringing people together, it brought them apart. The biggest issue McGrath had was with how Christians were labeled as oppressors, arguing that “it’s not really fair because [Christians] all believe in the same thing—we all believe in a higher power.”
DEI training has become a critical part of HR in companies, organizations and other institutions. Addressing issues regarding discrimination and its long-term effects helps minorities feel more welcome and allows for an overall change in any boundaries certain groups face. According to Jaime Klein’s article on DEI, he states that “organizations with more diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers,” the advantages of this training clearly benefiting the business side. DEI training tends to focus on educating employees on systemic racism, biases and microaggressions and developing various plans of action or changes to the organization’s current workings.
After the video was taken down for review, Tim Miller, the vice president for student affairs, released a statement addressing the issue. Miller preached for diversity and expressed how it’s “important that we make JMU a place that’s inclusive of all people and welcomes everyone to be Dukes.” President Jonathan Alger also released a message, stating, “I ask for empathy and support of one another,” emphasizing how conversations on DEI “can be difficult and at times uncomfortable,” but calling them “necessary.”
While it’s important to address DEI and its place at JMU, the training focused too much on the differences of social groups rather than the importance of inclusion on campus. Embracing differences and relating back to JMU’s culture should be the goal. Furthermore, when mentioning a teaching about privilege, it’s important to not shame certain groups, but to encourage them to use their privilege for those who don’t have it. Negativity and pointing fingers won’t get us anywhere, but actively searching for ways to solve problems and to become more united can get us somewhere. Having privilege doesn’t make someone an oppressor, but all oppressors gain their power from privilege.
Another aspect of the training that could be improved is addressing Christians as the oppressor. While Christians do have privilege in the U.S., that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all oppressors, as mentioned before. However, Christians need to understand that they can use their privilege for those in need. As a Christian myself, putting others first is a large part of Christianity, and in the Bible, Christians were once oppressed which further demonstrates Christians should be understanding of groups that aren’t in power.
It isn’t surprising that JMU is having a rocky start when addressing diversity, as it’s difficult to incorporate inclusive practices when systemic racism stands in the way. Being a predominantly white institution (PWI) makes the striving for diversity and inclusion difficult, but in the long-term it’s achievable as long as all members of the JMU community are willing to put in the effort.
Julia Cheng is a sophomore media arts and design major. Contact Julia at email@example.com.