It was an entertaining, yet informative evening when Terrell Strayhorn gave the final keynote speech in the D.P. Culp Auditorium for ETSU’s Civility Month celebration on March 30.
After establishing the University of Tennessee’s LEAD Summer Institute for underrepresented first-year students, Strayhorn moved to The Ohio State University in 2010. Now, he is a professor and directs the Center for Higher Education Enterprise, which is a research facility on access and student success in higher education.
Although the auditorium was not full, the group of students, faculty, staff and community members in attendance were captivated as Strayhorn shared stories about his childhood, family, travels and time at UTK.
“When we encounter difference or experience offense, we don’t always take giant steps backward physically, but we start retreating in our mind,” Strayhorn said about an experience at a restaurant in San Antonio where a waitress mistakenly called him ma’am. “What I wanted to do for her and do for the world is say don’t run away come back.”
Strayhorn said through certain interactions he’s had and his research he’s learned a lot about how humans are socialized to make certain assumptions about people.
“We are all socialized to certain norms about male and female behavior, and who gets to wear jewelry and how much is appropriate for your gender and what happens to those who transgress our expectations for our norms,” he said.
Strayhorn said people rarely give themselves time to check their assumptions. He said he doesn’t think the waitress woke up that morning and decided she was going to go to work and offend someone.
“One thing we have to do if we’re going to practice civility, if we’re going to create communities of civility, is to all try as much as possible is to assume positive intent,” he added.
Throughout the rest of his speech, Strayhorn laid out the other qualities needed to “Be the Hero,” which included allowing yourself to be in uncomfortable situations, such as speaking out and asking the right questions when assumptions are being made due to prejudice and biases.
He also reminded the audience it takes courage to do those things, but it is important in order to make positive changes in our classrooms, friend groups, families, workplaces and communities.