Sunday, March 9, 2008

Surprising Myself: response to being an Ally @ the Race and Campus Culture Teach-in

I am not a very eloquent person, but for some reason, I actually began the discussion in my group by rambling and stuttering through how I found this discussion and awareness about race to be particularly important to me personally as a student of education, I tried to explain how as a future teacher it was important to be informed about sensitive issues because someday I would serve as a role model for students. I managed to try and convey the previous statement, but not without a lot of “ummms…” “likes” and “…or somethings”.

The discussion continued and I found myself joining in and having examples to support other people’s thoughts. In one situation someone in the group was skeptical of another person’s claim about the cultural bias of standardized tests such as the SAT, I was able to chime in with a couple examples that I had read about, such as the use of a math question that was about calculating Scrabble scores, “if a child hasn’t ever even heard of Scrabble, they won’t even make it to the actual calculations before they give up on the question as being too difficult! Assuming that every child has had the same life experiences, such as playing a board game, this assumption is culturally and social-economically bias and seriously disadvantages the students who don’t have those same experiences!” After I said this people around the table nodded and the person who was skeptical said, “Oh, ok.” I actually helped someone understand something! This actually happened one other time as well when our table was discussing what could be done here at Geneseo to help the situation of racial injustice, I suggested a mandatory course about racial sensitivity issues. The discussion was, as closely as I can recall, as follows, I began, “I transferred to Geneseo this year, but I understand that there is a required course for first year students here, I don’t know what that course entails but perhaps it could include some aspect of giving students the historical context of minstrelsy and making students more aware about why this type of thing isn’t acceptable.”

The previously mentioned skeptical student said that he thought the idea about having a class was a good idea but that “you can make people take a course, but that can’t change their minds, the people who do black face and that sort of thing won’t care, they will still have the same ideas.”

Normally to this type of argument I would just shrug sadly and keep my mouth shut, but by some act of God, I countered, “Maybe a required course wouldn’t change people’s minds, I know I would definitely resent being made to take a course, but if it was mandatory I would suck it up and take the class and for people like me, who just didn’t know why everyone was so upset about this black face thing, a light bulb would go off and they would understand. Sure, not everyone would change their minds, but it would give people the information and the tools to be able to make an informed decision about what they believed.”

“Ignorance wouldn’t be able to be an excuse anymore.” Our student facilitator Brian Whitney added. Everyone nodded and we moved on and I was a little nervous and shocked that I had “gone against” what another person said, I know that sounds dumb but I’m not used to defending anything I say like that, so I was totally shocked when at the very end of the discussion, when the facilitators were gathering for closing statements and we were discussing what we could do in the future the skeptical student looked over at me and said, “I thought the best idea was definitely the idea of first year enrichment type classes to let people know what is wrong and why.” I couldn’t believe it! I had said something that actually changed someone’s mind about something! I had successfully defended an idea I had! I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal but even now sitting here typing this, I get kind of shaky when I think about it, it is a huge personal triumph for me to have actually talked and contributed something thoughtful that other people found to be useful.

This personal triumph is totally different from what I was expecting this morning when I woke up and was basically a nervous wreck, I didn’t know if I would even be able to understand what people would discuss let alone be able to say something other than, “ummm… I think… racism… is…. like…bad… or something... That is how I envisioned my reaction to be in the discussion situation. But today I understood everything and was able to not only respond to what other people brought up, but also offer my own opinions. I never would have thought I could do that, and while I had a shaky beginning, as the discussion continued, my voice got stronger and I was able to more articulately express what I thought. Seriously, wow.

Besides what I saw in my own responses, and myself I was surprised to find that just like me, a lot of people in the group admitted to being completely oblivious to the social climate of the campus. It was a common thread throughout our group that we weren’t at all aware of any real issue going on, on campus, until we took classes in which these issues were brought up by the assigned readings. Except for one, all of the people at my table were there because it was required for their class or because of extra credit. Despite this fact, everyone seemed really willing to listen and offer his or her opinion. No one seemed to have grudgingly dragged themselves out of bed for the event, everyone seemed glad to be there and able to discuss the issues that we all were grappling to understand.

Everyone in the group seemed to have good intentions but when the discussion turned to the fact that “discussion is nothing without action” someone in the group was honest and brought up the fact that it was easy for white students to ignore these types of issues and be too lazy to attend such events as the teach-in, because we are perfectly comfortable here. As part of our White Privilege we don’t feel threatened or unwelcome at Geneseo. As white students we are in the majority and the only thing that will make us pay attention and take action is if we truly care, if we don’t care then the issues are easy to ignore. A person who is deeply involved in the campuses climate might not agree that the issues are easily ignored, but at my discussion table we all admitted to having been doing a pretty good job of ignoring or being totally oblivious to the issue thus far.

As far as what I learned from the teach-in was that even though I went in mildly frightened and not knowing what to expect, (someone I was telling about the teach-in said that they wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being a huge “pissin’ match” in which people would be yelling and offending each other, thus furthering the racial divide,) that overall I had an amazing experience and learned a lot from both the presentation and the discussion, and even though the discussion was about a complicated issue and people had differing opinions, it was an extremely honest and respectful conversation in which people supported their ideas and others by citing the teach-in readings, reading that they had done elsewhere and perhaps most pointedly stories about their lives and experiences with racial injustice. I really enjoyed the teach-in I learned a lot and was even pleasantly surprised by my own ability to be involved in a difficult discussion.

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