Sep. 06 2016

Walking the Talk With Raygine DiAquoi

The new director of the School’s Office of Diversity Culture and Inclusion speaks on the value of self-reflection in fighting systemic oppression

For the fifth year, incoming students at the Mailman School took part in Self Social Global Awareness, a program geared to help them fight for health equity. In introductory remarks, Raygine DiAquoi, director of the School’s new Office of Diversity Culture and Inclusion (ODCI), told students that before they can succeed at this goal on a population scale they first must know more about themselves.

It was another moment of introspection that gave birth to ODCI (pronounced “odyssey”). In 2014, as the issue of police violence in communities of color gained national attention, students pushed the Mailman administration to take more vigorous action to advance the School’s—and public health’s—longstanding commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment with equity at the center.

A Columbia alumna—she got her B.A. in Sociology—DiAquoi did her graduate work at Harvard on “the Talk”—how African-American parents speak with their children about racism, including warnings about interactions with law enforcement. Her parents, both Haitian immigrants, began conversations with their daughter about racial discrimination and bias as soon as she could talk—lessons that gained more meaning in the private secondary school where she was the only black student in her class.

In her doctoral thesis, DiAquoi examined how the content of the Talk evolved through the 20th Century to the present, coming to the sobering conclusion that today’s conversations have regressed, resembling those from Jim Crow—a reality she says reflects structural racism of mass incarceration and policing that disproportionately affect people of color. More recently, her work on the way schools in Ferguson, Missouri, responded to the death of Michael Brown was crafted into a case study that has been widely used among educators and other leaders.

Current events are a constant in discussions of systemic oppression. Speaking to students during orientation, DiAquoi references the August murders of Queens imam Alauddin Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Miah. The killings, she says, are one manifestation of larger currents of Islamophobia and nativism that are also felt in less violent, but still hurtful, ways. She gives the example of airport security, which detains her friends for appearing to be Muslim and forces them to miss flights—an experience she says leaves them with “deep and lasting injury.”

Like Water to Fish

Everyday biases are everywhere—even within progressive enclaves like public health. A person may be deeply committed to ending macro-level injustices but still blind to their own unconscious role in perpetuating these systems through culturally insensitive remarks or actions known as a microaggressions.

“Microaggressions play no small part in systems of oppression,” says DiAquoi. “They are interpersonal acts of oppression. Ideologies of inferiority about certain groups are embedded in our institutions, giving individuals and groups permission to ‘other’ and mistreat certain members of the population.”

The “micro” in microaggressions isn’t indicative of the size of the harm, she explains, but rather its context. “Micro refers to the everyday nature of the assault. They happen and are cumulative and build on each other—daily verbal and non-verbal assaults that work to keep people in the margins on the margins.”

DiAquoi likens our experience of oppression and privilege to water and fish. Just as fish aren’t necessarily aware that they are wet or in water, we aren’t always aware of how we are all “swimming” in systems of oppression. “Those of us in fields like public health can see and feel the water, but the water is still there. It’s still very much informing how we interact with each other in subtle ways. We are daily taking in the elements of oppression even as we fight against it.”

Self Social Global Awareness (SSGA) asks students to examine power and privilege at various scales, from internalized oppression and interpersonal slights to institutional injustices. They consider the intersection of multiple dimensions of identity—including but not limited to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. DiAquoi, who says she considers herself a member of several oppressed classes, also counts herself as privileged on a number of counts, from her education to her fluency in English.

“Lean Into Discomfort”

She explained to students that the process of self-examination can be painful—especially for those who haven’t considered these issues before. “You should lean into discomfort,” she urged them. “It is where learning happens. … When you’re uncomfortable, trust that it’s part of the process.” At the same time, she says, it’s important to be gentle. “We need to call people into the work,” not call them out. “This is a school after all. We need to be committed to each other’s learning and growth around these issues.”

As part of SSGA, students toured nearby blocks of Washington Heights, examining these forces at work in the local geography of poverty and gentrification. The walk, like the acronym ODCI, can be seen as metaphor for the continuing work needed to overcome systemic oppression.

DiAquoi herself is constantly exploring new ground, taking part in workshops and conferences, and perhaps most of all, through introspection. “This work is daily and ongoing,” she says. “I have to constantly reflect and check myself and be humble enough to know there’s a lot I don’t know. I can’t speak for other people’s experiences. Just as I’m oppressed, I’m in a position to oppress others. It’s a constant struggle.”