Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fall Retreat

Ask what Calvin students did last weekend and you would probably hear stories ranging from the bubbling of answer sheets in plain-boring classrooms to the leisurely strolls along the beautiful Lake Michigan. Scores of students came to the Calvin campus to write the GRE and teacher certification tests, international students travelled to Chicago for their annual retreat, the Office of Christian Formation led a silent retreat at Camp Geneva, and the S-LC held their retreat at the Beversluis cottage.
As serious shalom farmers, intellectually inclined and socially engaged, we watched and discussed Meeting David Wilson http://meetingdavidwilson.com. The video introduced two men by the same name, one’s black and the other’s white. What’s significant was the fact that the black Wilson’s great grandfather was a slave to the white Wilson’s family 3 generations ago. Thus it was interesting to investigate how much of that history affects the two Wilsons, who live their lives as free men in the 21st century.
What caught my attention most about this video was the journey of self-identity for the black Wilson. He not only has to consider who he is as an individual, which is a normal ongoing process for most conscious people, but also to make sense of what his ancestral heritage means in the context of contemporary America. Having to reconcile identity dissonance is tough, but his seems tougher. Perhaps that’s the extra challenge many African-Americans face.
Like a looking glass, this video mirrored the issue of race as an issue society knows exists but doesn’t quite know how to approach. The video encouraged the pursuing discussion in many directions, and I am sure it inspired our staff to identify better ways to further engage the Calvin community on the issue of race. Unfortunately, faithful to what retreat means, yours truly dozed off the last ten minutes of the video and couldn’t quite keep up with the multi-faceted discussion. So that partly explains his posting his thoughts here.
The retreat was also a wonderful time of getting-to-know fellow staff members. Like coordinating StreetFest, the retreat helped build camaraderie.Everyone communicated at deeper interpersonal levels and more extensively than what the little common time we had in the office allowed. Individuals shared their dreams for a better world, graduation plans, and even cooking tips.
If only we didn’t have homework, and learned how to lift the weight of the world off our tiny shoulders, we could have had let our hair down a little more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Promised Second Installment

So I did go to Dr. Trepagnier’s lecture last Thursday. Ryan, Devin and I thought we had the best seats when we grabbed the front row, only to be pleasantly surprised later that 5 more rows were added between us and the podium. The turn out was unexpectedly overwhelming.

Dr.T, the way most of her students address her since almost no one can pronounce her last name correctly, shared her thoughts from her book for about an hour and fifteen minutes. The gist of her thesis argues that everyone has racist ideas, including well-meaning white people. The core of her strategy to take on racism is to educate people that “heightened race awareness is more important in changing racial inequality than judging whether individuals are racist”. Check out http://silentracism.com to make sure I didn’t misquote her. When people are more “race aware”, they will be more likely to identify racism, their own and institutional racism.

Dr. T also suggests that the question, “Am I racist?” shouldn’t be the one we ask. Instead, we should ask ourselves, “How am I racist?” Dr. T contends that unlike 5 decades ago, the notion of either one is racist or not racist doesn’t work today. Rather, she proposes that racism should be seen as a spectrum, where silent racism overarches this spectrum. On one end are those who are “less racist,” who are “race aware” and strive to combat racism. On the other end of that spectrum are those who are “more racist,” those who ignore racism or are overtly racist. Therefore all people are on this continuum.
If silent racism is silent, then does it still matter? Dr. T’s answer is an affirmative yes. She considers silent racism “instrumental in the production of institutional racism” and believes that if thoughts are how we see the world, then they will likely one day spill out through our words or actions. At that stage, I think, the damage could be too great to clean up.

What should we do to contain, and then reduce, racism? Dr. T thinks that “race awareness” is the start to countering racism. To tackle racism, we need to do it without guilt. To interrupt racism, we need humility and courage. The last two ideas mean we should speak up in whatever way and action against racism, and that it is not alright to be racist.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Racism: Silent and Alive

The first activity for the UNLEARN week begins with the L.O.F.T service. In fact it is happening right now as I write. UNLEARN week is a series of activities, initiated by the Multicultural Student Advisory Board (MSAB), that includes “lectures, panel discussions, daily chapels, and other events which try to breakdown ignorance and misunderstanding for the purpose of fostering racial reconciliation, cultural appreciation, and an authentic Christian community.” If you are new to Calvin College, want to find out more about the UNLEARN week, or the MSAB, please visit http://www.calvin.edu/admin/msdo/anti_racism_programs/unlearn.htm

I read Dr. Barbara Trepagnier’s Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide this past summer and am trilled to learn that she will be speaking on campus this Thursday evening. Sharing her research findings in the book, Dr. Trepagnier highlights how racism is still prevalent today. It seems that hints of racism and racial inequality is embedded so deeply in local contexts that as a result, people do act in racist ways, however slight it may be, often unknowingly. I will read the book again, attend Dr. Trepagnier’s lecture this Thursday, and come back with more thoughts and notes. OK, I will attempt.
Looking at racism from another angle, I wonder if racism is the result of miscommunication and/or the lack of interaction with other people. I can give you an example.

Several months ago, I had to get to the Ronald Reagan Airport before 5:00AM to catch a flight back to Grand Rapids. Since the Metro wasn’t in service that early in the morning, I hailed a taxi. It was the first time that I had a black driver. Because I had taken the taxi to the airport before, I knew exactly the quickest routes to the airport. That morning, however, the driver took me on an extremely long route that included a stretch of road that was partially under construction. In an unfamiliar environment, with a stranger steering the wheel, and juggling the worries if I could get to the airport on time and if there was an imminent danger to my life (and not to mention I was half-awake), the uncertainties brought anxiety. To cut the long story short, I did get to the airport safely-- it turned out that the driver missed an exit. If I had asked him why he took that route earlier, I probably won’t have had such a stressful ride. If he had mentioned that he missed a turn earlier, I probably would have been less nervous. Whichever the case, the lack of communication and unwittingly stereotyping members of ethnic groups, in moments of stress, as how the media have subtly inculcated us colored my perception to what could have been a non-event.

For his honesty and willingness to take responsibility for missing the exit by reducing the fare on the meter, I tipped him handsomely. While I will probably never see him again, I will remember him for teaching me that although this is a crazy world, good and honest folks do still exist out there… and that includes those often mistaken by society for being chronically delinquent.