For the first time in American history, a man of a different race is in the White House. Since January, Barack Obama has been serving as the president, but racism hasn’t ended. Just ask Terry Walsh.
Walsh, a coordinator for the Office of Cultural & Academic Transitions, said his Sudanese foster sons were pulled over while driving in Gary, Ind. a few months ago and held at gunpoint while police searched their car. He said the officers found nothing irregular and drove off.
“That’s never happened to me,” said Walsh. “Just because race isn’t as divisive as it was 10 years ago doesn’t mean that institutional racism doesn’t exist and white privilege [white people having access to more services] doesn’t exist.”
In a speech Feb. 18, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder challenged what he saw as Americans’ failure to have meaningful discussions about race.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we — I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder said. [WHO WAS THE SPEECH TO? WHAT WAS IT?]
Does that mean MSU is a campus of cowards too? [HOW SO?]
“I think MSU and I think higher ed in general does distinguish itself from other environments, [but] his point is that as a country we’ve decided not to have an authentic dialogue on race,” Paulette Granberry Russell, director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives said.
Granberry Russell’s office, which she referred to as “the focal point for diversity and inclusion at Michigan State,” deals with discrimination complaints and diversity education, as well as recruiting and retaining students and professors from many backgrounds. Part of her job is to also try to bring the multicultural groups in the colleges together to share ideas and resources and to talk about issues they face.
Having a meaningful discussion on race is often much harder than gathering a few people in the cafeteria, though.
“Sometimes a casual conversation can work,” Granberry Russell said. “If people are willing to trust each other, I say more power to them, but we’ve been having lunch table conversations for a long time.”
It’s key to set ground rules for discussions of issues like race, Granberry Russell said, and it often helps if someone experienced acts as facilitator.
“You can’t fear the fact that there will be disagreement on it. It’s a sensitive issue. People bring their personal experience, their personal beliefs and values, and that can be emotional,” Granberry Russell said. “How can you take those experiences of oppression and … create an environment where those things can be explored?”
OCAT aides, resident mentors, and leaders in the Multi-racial Unity Living Experience (MRULE), a living arrangement where students meet to discuss controversial issues in a diverse environment, all meet periodically to talk about racial issues and to build relationships between their groups.
Tom Rios, acting director of the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions (OCAT) said those environments usually need to talk about something other than race too.
“Most of our programs have to have a relational heart, so it’s not just exhorting people to be sensitive to others,” Rios said. “Learning is social, so you learn with, by and from others.”
Rios cited International Volunteer Action Corps, a group that tries to build relationships between domestic and international students through service learning, as an example of using a common interest as a “springboard” for building the trust needed to talk about sensitive issues. [BREAK DOWN AND ELABORATE]
“Trust requires a relationship,” he said.
Rios said getting majority students involved in multicultural activities can be difficult.
“It’s hard to reach out to [majority] students and make them see that they indeed have their own culture.”
Walsh, who works on programs to get majority students involved, said students don’t always notice their own cultures, like “a fish doesn’t notice water until he’s removed from it.”
Walsh said the dominant American culture is usually seen as white middle class, but that even something as small as the Izzone can be considered a culture because it has its own social customs.
“If you live in the inner city of Detroit versus going 15 minutes out, those are two very different cultures,” Walsh said. [I UNDERSTAND HIS POINT. TAKE ONE OF THE LAST 3 PARAGRAPHS OUT. TOO REPETITIVE]
Sometimes, Walsh said, leaving words like “multicultural” out of an event’s title can change the composition of the group that comes.
“I think any time that something is titled ‘multicultural’ majority students a lot of times won’t think it’s for them,” Walsh said. “If they see that there are students like them involved, they might feel more welcome there.”
Granberry Russell said the concept of allies, usually used in reference to the LGBT community, is important for racial issues too.
“If you go back and look at the civil rights movement, it wasn’t just black folks that were marching with Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], there were also white folks that were allies,” Granberry Russell said. “It’s standing up and walking the talk. … Are you prepared to risk a friend, or your family’s disagreement with you?”
Rios was skeptical of whether students, particularly majority students, take the time to check out the multicultural groups on campus.
“Michigan State’s the size of a city,” Rios said. “All I know is that each college has a representative to talk about issues related to diversity. For a lot of people those are difficult discussions. If people aren’t drinking deeply from the cup of experiences, it doesn’t matter how many opportunities the university offers.”
Granberry Russell wished more students would look outside their comfort zones.
“I wish that more people took advantage of those opportunities, sought them out, insisted on them,” she said.
Still, Walsh said he’s seen progress in race relations, and that the OCAT aides generally sit in mixed groups at lunch. “They’re able to have conversations about race and race relations than I could in college 15 years ago,” Walsh said. [HE COULD?]
When he was training a new group of aides, Walsh divided them into pairs and told them to talk for two minutes and find their differences. “Not one of the students brought up ‘I’m black and she’s white’,” Walsh said. “I think that’s not because they’re colorblind, but that they realize that there are things that are more important than the color of someone’s skin.”