Susan Harper, Ph.D.
April is Celebrate Diversity Month and HR Highlights is celebrating by presenting a UNT World faculty or staff member who works to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their professional and personal lives. Follow UNT System (@untsystem) on Twitter and Facebook for #CelebrateDiversity profiles, events, movie and book lists, recipes and more throughout the month. Our first Celebrate Diversity profile is...
Susan Harper, Ph.D., Coordinator of Activities, Student Affairs, UNT Dallas
A member of the LBGTQ+ community, Dr. Harper believes "engaging with people who are different from us helps us learn more about our shared humanity and (hopefully at least) commit to a more just world." She leads UNT Dallas' multicultural programming that encourages open dialogues about the differences that enrich our community. She's experienced both prejudice and progress in her daily life -- and both fuel her desire to create welcoming
environments on our campuses and workplaces. Read in her own words why she speaks publicly on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, her own story of progress and how attitudes toward multicultural programming are changing.
What does diversity mean to you?
At its heart, diversity is the fact of difference – people of different walks of life living and working alongside each other. But when we talk about diversity in the context of higher education and in terms of social justice, we usually mean something a bit more vibrant. I like the distinction Dr. Diana Eck of The Pluralism Project at Harvard makes between “diversity” and “pluralism”: Diversity is the fact of difference, while pluralism is the intentional and energetic engagement of people across difference. I think starting with acknowledging diversity and its many dimensions is key, but my ultimate goal is working for a more pluralistic world.
Why is it important to you to speak publicly on issues of diversity, including LGBTQ+ rights in the workplace and workplace diversity as a whole?
Engaging with people who are different from us helps us learn more about our shared humanity and (hopefully at least) commit to a more just world. Engaging with diversity also helps us find “our” people with whom we have common cause. I find it important to speak publicly on these issues for a couple of reasons. First, injustices and inequalities can hide in plain sight, and it’s incredibly important to bring them to light if we’re going to address these and achieve liberation for all. Second, I have been given an immense platform from which to speak – I hold a number of privileges that make it safer and easier for me to speak about these issues, as a cisgender, white, enabled, Ph.D.-educated woman. Even on issues that don’t touch me directly, I find it important to speak about how we recognize and address inequality and injustice, and also how we become more compassionate, more connected humans.
When it comes to LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace, my investment is personal. The majority of Americans surveyed in recent years believed that the Supreme Court decision that affirmed the legality of same-sex/same-gender marriages meant that all other forms of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. were outlawed. This is not true. A Supreme Court decision in the last year affirmed that LGBTQ+ people are protected by employment nondiscrimination law; until then, it was legal in more than 20 states to discriminate against a person for their sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring and firing. LGBTQ+ people still do not have federal protection in the U.S. from housing discrimination, healthcare discrimination and more. We are dependent on our states, cities, counties or employers to enact nondiscrimination policies and laws. I do a lot of speaking on this both in my job here and as a consultant to businesses and nonprofits in Dallas-Fort Worth. Most people I meet are aghast to learn that this kind of discrimination is still legal. This is the kind of thing I mean when I say that injustice and inequality can hide in plain sight.
I also think it’s important for me personally to speak up because, as a bisexual woman, I have experienced the way in which bi- and pansexual people are sometimes erased in discussions of LGBTQ+ rights. Visibility is important, especially to young people who may be just coming to understand their identities – seeing queer adults around me was pivotal in my accepting and understanding myself, and I want to pay that forward.
Is there a particular personal story that you share that speaks to the intolerance or tolerance of our society toward people who fit into a diversity or minority category?
Yes! I have many, as you might imagine, but this one is my favorite. In 2009 or 2010, when UNT Dallas was still just one building (DAL 1), I was using the community counseling clinic here. One day after my appointment, my partner came out to pick me up, and we were sitting behind the building, facing where the basketball court is now. We were just sitting and chatting because it was a nice day. Like many LGBTQ+ people, especially in the South, we are somewhat vigilant in public – almost all of us either have had or know someone who has had a violent or hostile encounter with homophobia. We noticed a woman, probably in her 50s, watching us. She came up to us and asked, “Are you two together?” After a moment and a quick exchanged look, we said, “Yes.” And she smiled the BIGGEST smile and said, “Oh, I’m so happy for y’all. You are so beautiful together. I am so happy that it’s becoming more accepted. You two keep being who you are.” I never saw her again but I will never forget that.
You design multicultural programming, student activities and educational and social events at UNT Dallas. How have attitudes changed toward this type of programming over the years?
Multicultural programming has changed a great deal since I was an undergraduate, and even since I was in graduate school. And so have attitudes toward it. There has been, over the last 15 years or so, more resistance in some sectors to this type of education – mostly from a colorblind, “we are all humans” perspective that either doesn’t understand why such programs are valuable or who feel threatened by the recognition of anything outside of the standard white American narrative. I’ve also seen important discussions among my colleagues about the ways in which such programming is often by default white-centered and geared toward making the members of the majority – white, enabled, cisgender, heterosexual, etc. – comfortable with difference rather than affirming members of marginalized or “diverse” groups. Even now, a lot of diversity program is “Add [insert group here] and stir.” One thing I love about working at UNT Dallas is that I sort of have to play the game on hard mode. Instead of making a mostly homogenous audience comfortable with difference, I get to work with students who are historically underrepresented in higher education in creating programs that they find affirming, educational and valuable. It means I have to continuously learn and fill in my own knowledge gaps, too. I get to create and co-create programming that is far more challenging than what I got to attend as an undergraduate. (I say that with no shade toward the folks who were doing the programming when I was an undergrad in the 90s – they were doing work that was appropriate to the time and environment, and it helped shape who I am today!)
There is definitely a current in discussions of higher education, especially over the last 20 years, that questions the value of student activities, multicultural and diversity programs and the like, because it is sometimes difficult for people outside of higher ed to understand how these programs benefit students. However, the research overwhelmingly shows that what happens in the “second space” (campus activities, programs, residence halls, etc.) is just as valuable as what happens in the “first space” (the classroom). It is through these programs that students learn to develop and apply critical thinking in a wide variety of scenarios, engage with difference, reflect on their own identities and values, build relationships and more. These programs and activities ideally build on what students are learning in the classroom (and vice versa) and help produce more well-rounded, compassionate and whole humans who are prepared to be part of a pluralistic and changing world – which is the point of education.