The University of Connecticut does not ignore racism, even when it’s not the day of metanoia. Students read books with racial themes, UConn has a number of cultural centers in place to offer support to those who have faced racism and the school offers classes with racial subjects and themes.
Central to this idea of confronting racism is the idea of discussion: people with different ethnic identities and racial backgrounds coming together to share experiences and hone in on specific issues. It’s easy to say that discussion needs to take place, but faculty and students may struggle with how to make this happen.
Confronting Racism Together: A Model Dialogue, was one of many events that took place on the day of metanoia and it answered this question. Nine members of the UConn community – administrators, graduate students and professors alike – sat in a semicircle on the stage of Konover auditorium and responded to questions posed by facilitators, sharing experiences and honing in on specific issues.
Valeriano Ramos, Director of Strategic Alliances and Equity Officer at “Everyday Democracy,” co-facilitated the discussion and encouraged the speakers to “interact as if the audience is not here.” Ramos is used to facilitating these kinds of dialogues through his work with “Everyday Democracy,” which helps community members learn from one another and take action to strengthen democracy. This “model” dialogue differed for him because of the audience.
“It’s definitely better than having people spitting facts,” fifth-semester elementary education major Helen Nguyen said of the evening’s format. “Racism is everywhere. Everyone has their own perspective of it.”
Nguyen expressed that a single person discussing the issue couldn’t represent the diverse viewpoints that the dialogue format presented.
Brendan Kane, assistant professor of history and assistant director of public humanities, joined Ramos to facilitate the event, which they divided into three parts.
They started off by having participants share racial and ethnic identities they brought to the table. The participants were a diverse bunch. Collectively, they have lived in Chicago and China, have black skin and white skin, and speak with different accents.
“I’m very proud of being African American and black culture in the United States,” Chief Diversity Officer and dialogue participant Joelle Murchison said.
Several of the participants echoed similar sentiments towards their respective ethnic or racial communities during this early portion of the dialogue.
For the second part of the discussion, Kane presented the participants with 10 case studies, including a Latina girl who wasn’t taken seriously because of her accent, an African American receiving a position as a police officer over a white man with similar exam scores or a Muslim who cancels travel plans after a terrorist attack to avoid bullying by airport security. The discussion members responded with which studies stood out to them and which they could relate to. Nearly every case study shared characteristics with at least one experience of a participant.
One of the final activities within the dialogue was a “Privilege Walk.” It pulled from a widely used ice-breaker-type activity of taking steps forward or back. Statements were read and dialogue participants who saw themselves in the statement were either asked to step forward or step backward.
Examples included being asked to step forward if you had graduated from an ivy league school, or to step backward if members of your group had ever been excluded from voting by United States law. The point was not only to have the participants ask themselves these questions and consider the implications of moving forward or backward, but to also observe the differences within the group.
Ultimately, throughout the course of the dialogue, with the help of the facilitators and the activities, the nine participants covered themes such as using language as a proxy for race, the fear that motivates minorities, racism today as ignorance of institutionalized racism and white privilege and the idea that society produces many who don’t identify as racists but may have unknowingly participated in racism.
These themes, the format of the event and the remarks made by Dodd Center Director Glenn Mitoma at the introduction and conclusion of the event encouraged audience members to take what they had observed, channel the bravery of the participants and start sparking these kinds of dialogues for themselves.
Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.