Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Walking in someone else's shoes

Recently I tagged along with a coworker to an event that she helped organize through her work with the Diversity Action Committee.  The series of workshops and discussions was called "Tools of Inclusion" and featured a variety of events held by the colleges across campus.  This one that I attended was "Theater for Social Change" held by the College of Fine Arts and Communication.  The description of the event was more of a class description :
Theatre for Social Change explores the theories and techniques involved in the creation of theatre that specifically addresses contemporary social, political, and cultural issues that confront contemporary America. Throughout the semester, students study various examples of this kind of work and the theories behind their conception. Simultaneously, they spend time identifying—via critical readings and analysis of contemporary events—what the pressing issues are that define the modern American experience and whether there may be better ways for public engagement and understanding. Students will show solo and ensemble work during the presentation.

What I saw was the final culmination of the class.  There were only a handful of people there to watch, which was too bad because the show was impressive.  With very few props and only their bodies and voices, the show easily drew me in and I wish it could have some how been recorded to be shown to more people.  The skits/monologues/dances commented on religious freedoms, individual politics and interpretive problem solving.  For myself it was the monologues which struck the loudest chord.  The students were following the example of Anna Deavere Smith.  If you've never seen or heard her before you must watch this (of course) TED talk she did:

How much better do you understand someone when you must be that person?  Imitation can be used in negative and positive ways.  It is much easier to mock someone's differences, to place yourself above someone by pointing out all their flaws.  The challenge for so many diversity initiatives is creating an atmosphere of respect for differences.  What many do not realize is how ingrained our lack of understanding can be.  Perhaps the reason the monologues struck me was because just a few weeks prior this "discussion" occurred:

Every week a question gets posted to this board at the entrance of our library and students can write responses.  The question was "What can Towson do to increase diversity?" and while some of the answers were tongue in cheek, over the course of the week the responses essentially turned into a debate over equal opportunity scholarships and how some viewed race as granting an unfair advantage.  I was surprised and conflicted about it.  I have benefited from such scholarships, so the board felt like a personal attack on me.  Should I feel guilty?  Did I get that money only because of the color of my skin?  Had I taken opportunity away from someone more deserving? I still do not feel like I have a clear answer to any of the conflicts brought up by this simple poster.  What the monologues did do for me was recognize how every individual is unique, and that diversity is a bond we can all share.  For a brief moment a person can walk in someone else's shoes, give the audience a glimpse into another person's soul and acknowledge that no matter how different we are from each other we are all important and we all make an impact, good or bad.  I hope that diversity initiatives like the one which I attended are helping give perspective and building positive awareness.  So that the next time someone is given the opportunity to voice their opinion they can strive to be more constructive and empathetic.  The struggle today could be even harder as it becomes easier and easier to see only what we want to see.


  1. "Had I taken opportunity away from someone more deserving?" -I doubt it, Laks. I know few who would be "more deserving" than you.

    It is an interesting topic though. One I am getting thrown at more and more often. My mother got yelled at by a parent recently (after a number of lessons during African American heritage month). The parent said that her child was feeling guilty for being white. My mother teaches Kindergarten...and probably doesn't really spend that much time making people feel guilty of anything.

    I think teaching history, race and cultural diversity walks a difficult line. Our history isn't very nice and, often, the way it is taught leaves our future looking a bit hopeless too. Although we should've learned that separate is not equal, we still have a tendency to approach culture and race on that level. An Us and Them thing. Groups of people have a month of time dedicated to illustrating their entire history: February is African American heritage month, September/October is Hispanic heritage month, all the Native American tribes have to get crammed into November. We continue to teach a patriarchal, white-washed history with cutaways to minority groups, cultures and such.

    The cutaway history we have is reactionary. This minority culture has problem x, y or z because of a, b or c. A, B, and C are likely to respond in a defensive manner. Comments like the "I am by no means a racist but..." are defensive and thoughtless arguments often grounded in a desire to shirk culpability for past atrocities and ever-present racism. "I'm not racist but" is often followed by prolific racism.

    I think the change for diversity has to start long before kids get to college. Our history lessons need to be less segregated. Our discussions about race need to be more constructive. And folks of all colors, cultures and backgrounds should be encouraged to learn a bit more about one another.

    You're right. It is an empathy thing.

  2. i'm in agreement with Samz. Never think that you took away an "...opportunity away from someone more deserving?". You and I and others who win these awards or scholarships do so because we are the best and the brightest and yes we happen to be people of color.