In the mix
Teaching tolerance at UMass-Lowell

As the child of an interracial marriage, Oneida Blagg attracted a lot of attention growing up.

“I’m tri-racial — one parent is part-black and Native American and the other parent is Native American and Caucasian,” she explains. “You look at our family and visibly see differences in color among the children, and obviously the parents were different in color, so people had reactions to us.”

The resultant stares and the questions that tagged along weren’t always tactful — “Are you adopted?” was common. But Blagg, who was appointed the director of equal opportunity and outreach at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in 2005 and has over three decades of experience in the field of equal opportunity, says those childhood experiences have actually had a positive effect on her career path.

She decided to ignore the judgments implied by the comments, questions and stares, and instead set her own goals and standards.

“After a certain point, I realized I can’t change their response,” she says. “And it was actually very helpful for me … as an individual to realize, ‘You’re not going to be able to run with the pack, you’re going to have to stand alone, do the best job you can wherever you are.’”

Blagg also soon saw that her personal experiences gave her a better understanding of matters related to stereotypes about race and ethnicity.

“It’s given me a view of the world where I identify with different groups and different needs, and the impact of certain things, such as color and what people think you are,” she says.

This ability has proven crucial in her position at UMass-Lowell, where Blagg works to promote diversity on the school’s campus, specifically among the people who work there.

“We need to build representation for African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans in terms of faculty and staff,” she explains. “When all members of the faculty and staff and students see role models from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, this adds something very important to our workforce, which makes us more marketable … It makes us more global and it expands this whole sense of diversity.”

Toward that end, Blagg works with recruiters and employment agencies to find out how to best reach minority jobseekers. This includes advertising job openings in publications with very specific audiences, such as Indian Country Today and Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, as well as ensuring that the university projects an accurate image of its own already diverse population.

The impetus for these initiatives also has ties to Blagg’s personal experiences.

“As a minority, I too have looked for jobs and have looked at various Web sites of companies and institutions, and I look very closely at the image they project — or [that] they don’t,” she notes. “Now that I’m involved with minority recruitment, I can help frame some sort of an image for the university that will really reach into minority communities in terms of how we project ourselves so that we are demonstrating the inclusiveness that many people at the university really do feel, and really do want, for the campus and for the students here.”

Having worked in equal opportunity affairs for much of her professional life, Blagg emphasizes the importance of nuance in understanding thorny issues such as affirmative action. As a mechanism to ensure a fair and equitable hiring process, Blagg says that affirmative action is only one aspect of ensuring diversity.

“Equal opportunity is about more than just affirmative action as a civil compliance unit or a kind of police for the rest of the institution,” she adds. “It has to do with training, outreach and recruitment and handling concerns from the workforce that may relate to discrimination.”

The university’s diversity awareness sessions, run out of Blagg’s office, have trained almost 500 people in the last three years about matters related to “civility and respect in the workplace,” traits that go beyond ideas of tolerance and acceptance.

“Tolerance means with your teeth grinding you will tolerate the other person and acceptance means I have to agree with everything you say. I don’t think that’s humanly possible,” Blagg says with a laugh. “But when we respect one another, we can say, ‘I still have my beliefs, you have your beliefs, I respect you,’ and when we see the difference we can say, ‘Yes, there it is. There’s no need to become uncivil about it.’”

Blagg notes that social norms in discussing race and ethnicity have changed since she was a child; she now fields far fewer overtly rude questions about her racial identity. In fact, curiosity about her appearance has led to a number of unusual but meaningful encounters since she moved to Massachusetts three years ago.

“People have come up to me and will start speaking in Portuguese and I have to answer in very broken Spanish that I don’t speak,” she says. “I think it’s fascinating when we can move through cultures and observe the ways they communicate.”

Reflecting more generally on diversity and cultural interchange, Blagg adds that while some people might think of such moments of misrecognition as awkward or uncomfortable, she sees the matter differently.

“In some ways, I wish that communication was stronger and more clear,” she says. “I enjoy the interchange of people and I think it makes life interesting.”

“When all members of the faculty
and staff and students see role models
from all kinds of cultural backgrounds,
this adds something very important to
our workforce.”
— Oneida Blagg