Thursday, July 14, 2016

Talking Over the Racial Divide

The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Dan Berrett
July 14, 2016

The students started trying to understand one another by explaining the origins of their names, then conveying their cultural identity in three objects.

Mike, a sophomore criminal-justice major, said his Brazilian parents hoped his name would make him sound more American, "whatever that means," he added, smiling. He sat with his hands in his coat pockets and the zipper pulled up to his mouth on the first day of a course about race here at the University of Maryland, where the goal was to re-examine a lifetime of assumptions in two-hour shifts.

On the second day, Mike brought his objects in a Timberland box, from the boots he started wearing in North Newark, N.J., where lots of black and Hispanic kids did. The objects included a collection of press clippings about homicides in his neighborhood and a photograph of his 5-year-old nephew, Matthew, to help him remember his obligations back home.

Across from him sat Lindi, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., a wealthy suburb of Washington. She held up the bow hair clip she’d earned as captain of her high-school cheerleading team; a small box in the shape of Africa, because she had lived in South Africa for the first month of her life; and a Hamsa, a symbol to ward off evil spirits she got on a free trip to Israel for young Jews.
"I didn’t realize how much of a minority I was until I was in the majority," she said of the trip. Back in the United States, she said, she tried to eat out on Easter but found restaurants closed.

On seven Tuesdays this spring, The Chronicle watched as 14 students met in a course dedicated to discussing race, a perennial, at times explosive issue on campuses and across the country. Maryland offers the course as part of an effort to make students more proficient with difference — to help them have thorny conversations on uncomfortable topics, see the value of other people’s experiences, and gain some perspective on their own. At least, that’s the hope. But how potent a tool can talk be?


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