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Pamela Pruitt

Pamela Pruitt had gotten the insults through much of her life, but it was only recently that a word has been coined to describe what they were. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘For a black female, gee you’re smart,” Pruitt says. “Well, why wouldn’t I be smart? I perceive that you’re being snide and throwing shade on my smartness.”

That’s one example of what social justice scholars call “microaggressions,” which are derogatory or insulting remarks delivered either intentionally or unintentionally, often to someone who is marginalized for some reason such as race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

Pruitt, who is director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Rider University, will deliver a seminar on “micromessaging” and “microaggression” at a meeting of the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Friday, November 1, from 7:30 to 10 a.m. at Cobblestone Creek Country Club. Tickets are $45, $35 for chamber members. For more information, visit www.princetonmercerchamber.org.

One of the key points in Pruitt’s talk will be the distinction between micromessaging and microaggression. A micromessage is a small, subtle, yet universally understood gesture delivered through body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These signals can be used to shade communication with positive or negative meaning, or to turn an innocuous remark into a “microaggression.”

The term microaggression was coined by Chester Pierce, a professor, in the early 1970s and referred to the put-downs that black Americans received through their daily lives. Around 2008 academic studies argued the term could be applied not just to black Americans but any marginalized group. Around this time the term entered pop culture through the Internet and came into more widespread use.

“It happens every day in the business community,” Pruitt says. Even the architecture can deliver subtle messages: for example, a company or university might have a hallway or wall that depicts past leadership of the institution, who all happen to be white men. “That depicts a culture that might not be warm and fuzzy to females,” Pruitt says.

Common lack of consideration can also be a microaggression. For example, someone could deliver an address without a microphone; people in the audience with worse hearing feel excluded.

Pruitt says there are ways to make workplaces friendlier to people of different backgrounds. One is to do “blind” interviews if possible to minimize conscious or unconscious biases that the interviewer may hold toward certain groups of people. “In the interviewer’s mind, they might have a certain kind of person in mind for who they want to have that role,” Pruitt says.

There is real-world experience to show that blind interviews can help marginalized people get jobs. Many orchestras have begun holding blind auditions where the listeners can’t see who is playing the instruments. Those that have done so have seen an increase in the number of women orchestra members.

There is a limit to colorblindness, however. Pruitt says after the hiring process is over, it is better to be open about backgrounds and cultural differences. “We don’t want you to be colorblind,” she says. “I want you to see me as a black woman, and I want you to tell me about your background.” Talking about these differences openly can give people an opportunity to connect with one another, she says.

The presentation will be geared toward the business community and how organizations can use this knowledge to change their workplaces for the better. Pruitt says her presentation will include an exercise where audience members will discuss microaggressions that have occurred in their own workplaces. She will also provide a list of books about best practices in cultural competency training.

“Everybody will leave equipped with resources so they can educate themselves,” she says. “One size does not fit all, and this workshop is not just to check off a box. It’s going to make you aware of how you can make your business better, how to be a better individual and get along with others and to accept differences in this ever changing global world.”

Pruitt’s perspective on diversity issues has been shaped by her own background. From an early age the odds seemed stacked against her ever earning a doctorate degree. She grew up in Chicago in a single-parent household. When it came time to go to college she earned scholarships to attend any state university for free, but her mother couldn’t provide money to pay for room, board, and textbooks because she had just bought a new car. Instead, she went to work.

Despite a lack of college education, Pruitt led a successful career in business, eventually earning six figures at various jobs. She also was a singer-songwriter under the name Pamela Moffett, where she wrote songs for Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and others. Her song, “Baby Come Close,” can be heard in the background of Ne-Yo’s 2007 song “Leaving Tonight,” which was on the Grammy-winning CD, Because of You.

Pruitt says that in 1999 or 2000 she still never imagined pursuing higher education. “There was no academia in my vision until after I survived the events at the World Trade Center,” Pruitt says. She is working on a book about her experiences on September 11, which found her working at the World Trade Center Complex. As she escaped Brooklyn bloody and blistered, she says, a friend of hers called and said, “Kid, you’re in the bonus round, so make the best of it.”

Her next job was at the WIMG radio station in Trenton as vice president for business development. On the side, she started working with students through the Trenton Education Foundation as a volunteer, where she met children who reminded her of herself as a kid.

The experience inspired her to go back to school, and in 2010 she graduated from Thomas Edison State University with a degree in communications. She earned her master’s two years later from Rutgers, and her doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. She has held her position at Rider for the past six years.

“I tell people frequently that I can go home at night and feel like I won the lottery that day,” she says. “I’m not saying I have a rosy life, but I’m bringing equity and diversity into my university here.”