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In ‘Taking on Diversity,’ NCSU professor aims to help people get along

Published 5/29/2015
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Dr. Rupert W. Nacoste, an award-winning psychology professor at N.C. State University, wants to help people get along with one another. He’s the author of “Taking on Diversity: How We Can Move from Anxiety to Respect” (Prometheus Books, $19).

The Louisiana native, a member of the N.C. State faculty since 1988, teaches his undergraduate students about “neo-diversity” – interacting with people of different gender, religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

The UNC Board of Governors recognized Nacoste with the 2013 Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, which is given to one teacher at each of the 17 UNC system institutions to “underscore the importance of teaching and to encourage, identify, recognize, reward, and support good teaching within the University.”

Nacoste’s conversations with students in his Interpersonal Relationships and Race class inspired his book. “Taking on Diversity” has been excerpted on and in the Utne Reader.

Nacoste, who grew up during the Jim Crow era in Bayou country, talked recently with The N&O about bigotry, interpersonal relationships and how we can better understand each other. This is an edited excerpt of that conversation.

Q Could you finish this sentence in 2015? It was a hell of a time ...

A It was a hell of a time because America is at a tipping point when it comes to diversity. It was a hell of a time because America is struggling with its neo-diversity across all kinds of dimensions: gender, religion, and obviously race.

Q Describe the difference between prejudice, bigotry and racism?

A That’s one of the big struggles because we like using the word racism. We use it too broadly. We jammed together prejudice, bigotry and racism. Prejudice is an individual’s negative feelings toward a whole group of people. They are unfair feelings because you can’t interact with a whole group of people. ... When those negative feelings come out in behavior in either word or deed, that’s bigotry. Racism is never in a person. Racism is institutional and organizational patterns of behavior that support prejudice and bigotry.

Q You ask your students to describe the most intense interpersonal experience with group dynamics. Describe your own.

A Race riots aboard a ship. ... I was on board a naval ship, an aircraft carrier where we had a race riot that lasted three days, carrying 5,000 men and weapons of mass destruction.

Q So what happened?

A This was January, 1973. So at the time, the Navy is struggling mightily with its new racial dimension. The Navy was the most resistant to desegregation efforts. Even into the 1960s, African-American men could only be cooks. The Navy had to change. They started recruiting black men. They came on board these ships but were still being shunted into the mess hall duty. But by the 1970s, we’ve gone through Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act eliminating Jim Crow laws, and the Black Power Movement. So now you have these black men serving on the ship who ain’t putting up with it. We’ve got old Navy patterns of white men still trying to push black men in cooking and cleaning roles. The institution was changing itself. So all that led to a lot of racial tension. It just went crazy on a ship. For three days, there were attacks on white and black sailors as people tried to carry out their duties. The captain came across on the 1MC (a shipboard public address circuit) to make an announcement. On board of every aircraft carrier is a unit of Marines. The captain said this is going to stop. I have armed the Marines. I have given them direct orders to shoot to kill anyone causing a disturbance. The riots stopped.

Q How do you suggest connecting to people unlike you?

A The way to connect to people is to connect to the person. Never try to interact with a person as a representative of a group. Deal with the person right in front of you. For example, how do you start a conversation? People make all kinds of mistakes with me. It’s across the board. They look at me and say, ‘So you were a football player.’ I say no, I didn’t play football or basketball. Now the interaction is stifled. ... Don’t trust your assumptions. Sometimes to start a conversation you have to ask a question, but don’t make the question narrow. Too often people ask, what do you do for a living? I tell my students not to ask that question. Ask this question: What keeps you busy? I have no assumptions about whether you work. I want to know how you see your life. ... Then we can start having a conversation.

Q If you were advising city officials and community leaders about the relationship between police and African-American males, what would you say?

A What is profiling? If it’s just racial, it’s not good. A good profile must include particulars of behavior. A group category is only useful in a profile if it is accurate and is used as beginning point. After that, it has to be behavioral. Is this particular person behaving in a way that suggests a real need for further questioning – the way the person is dressed, the way the person is moving their eyes, their hands and other parts of their body? To do that, part of the training is teaching police to control the “us versus them” mentality because “us versus them” is too broad and at the same time too narrow a way of investigating what is going on. So all this talk about community policing is the way to go, if what people mean is to get rid of the “us versus them.”

Q How should a black man act if he’s stopped by police?

A The worst advice anyone can tell you is to change the behavior to fit a certain mode. Everybody has to have a certain amount of situational awareness. That’s a social skill. You read the situation. ... Tone of voice. Language. It should fit the situation. The idea that if you are stopped by the police you have to defend yourself is all wrong. That’s not going to go well for you. You behave as if it’s all OK. Some police do wrong things. But you can’t assume. Don’t trust your assumptions. It works for both sides.