One of the courses I'm enrolled in this quarter is a Community & Regional Development class entitled "Ethnicity and American Communities." If I had to pick one single class I were absolutely in love with during my entire university experience, this would most likely be it. Interestingly enough, the other likely contenders fall into the category of classes related to social and ethnic relations as well. This is the stuff I love.
In a lecture hall that holds nearly 150 seats and a sea of diverse faces among which it would otherwise be quite easy to become just another anonymous figure, our professor – a woman with a sharp, elfin face and purple streaks in her white hair, whose wide, gleeful grin for some reason reminds me of my grandmother's – has successfully managed to help us not only get to know one another, but also to put our heart and soul into speaking honestly and sharing our thoughts, opinions, and experiences as applicable to the course. CRD 2 is a safe space, and, judging by the discussion, directness, and dialogue we've achieved just over the past few weeks, I don't use that term lightly. I am constantly humbled by the stories my classmates share with us, and entrust us with.
During the latest lecture, our professor mentioned she was concerned about the fact that many students had made references to "colored people" while writing their weekly reaction papers for the class. I would find that laughable – who in their right mind still uses the term "colored people"?! – except I know what a painful, shameful history those words have had in the United States, and how emotive the phrase still is for many people. Looking around at the sea of faces in the lecture hall, I saw a variety of expressions: amused, shocked, embarrassed, cringing.
"We don't say 'colored people' anymore," said the professor gently. "Who knows what the correct term is – today, at least?"
There was a smattering of laughter as someone called out, "People of color!" Some white people looked slightly confused; the "colored people" smiled knowingly in amusement.
The professor scrawled both phrases on the chalkboard and turned back to the class. "I know, it sounds like the same thing, doesn't it? Who knows what the difference is, between 'colored people' and 'people of color?'"
I don't know how common the usage of "people of color" is outside the United States, but even I myself had never heard of the term until I started college, and only thought about it closely for the first time when I was designing workshops for the Women of Color Conference last spring. Perhaps it's all semantics, but I think the modifier makes all the difference: "colored people" is passive; "people of color" denotes ownership and active choice. What's wrong with referring to "colored people"? It implies that there are two standards for people (those who are colored, and those who are…not), that one group is the norm (clean, untainted, and wholesome) and the other is…not. Guess which is which.
Last week I read my "What Did You Think?" poem aloud in class. Later, a white classmate who walked out with me remarked in response to the poem, "You know, maybe I'm just not judgmental enough, but I wouldn't even look at you and think you don't know how to speak English." I smiled in amusement. "You'd be surprised," I answered. Here's something that's true: The reactions I get from strangers when I'm wearing jeans and what my father calls my "retro hippie dress with the strings" (also labeled the "river rat gypsy dress" by my brother) are different from those I get when I'm wearing more ethnic clothing such as pants and a Pakistani top. It's human nature to assume, to jump to conclusions, to judge without context, and I suppose I'm fortunate that my experiences with people in that regard have more to do with what I'm wearing, the way I speak, and how I carry myself rather than specifically with the color of my skin.
A few days ago, during one of my perpetual phases of non-thinking, I turned on the oven and placed the top of my index finger right up against the broiler to check whether it was hot enough. Who in their right mind does things like that, really? So now I sport a small, circular burn on my finger. It's going through a healing stage, darkening with each day that passes. I find myself glancing at it during odd moments of the day, regarding it not as a blemish but just something interesting and out of the ordinary. (After all, it means at least some tiny bit of my skin tone now matches my mother's, and we all know my mother is the best.) And while my little brown burn mark is such a trivial thing, it's made me realize that darker skin catches the eye more often when it's something unusual or uncommon. I may find it intriguing, but the sad fact is that a seemingly inconsequential thing like the color of one's skin has, both historically and currently, been grounds for prejudice, disrespect, hate, and raging atrocities.
It breaks my heart on a daily basis – through workshops, forums, film screenings, discussion panels, and in-depth conversations with strangers and people I know – to realize the extent of discrimination and racism and intolerance that still exist in our world today. And it's not all just about race and ethnicity. There's also gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, and a multitude of other assumptions and characteristics by which we define ourselves and each another.
A few evenings ago, listening to the Chicano/Latino panel talk about their lives and experiences and frantically jotting down scribbled notes whenever their stories reminded me of incidents and conversations from my own past, I was struck again by a thought that has crossed my mind often during the last couple of years that I've been involved with issues of race/ethnicity and diversity: that the colors may vary and our experiences differ across the board, but ultimately, at the core of our humanity, our stories somehow reflect one another's.
The point was driven home even more effectively by a couple of activities we carried out during class. The first one was an outdoor activity for which we trudged out to the edge of the wide lawn next to the building, all 150 of us standing in a huge group, shivering in the cold late afternoon wind.
The professor called out instructions, reading through a long list: "Step to the side if you are _____. *pause* Pay attention to who is standing with you. *pause* Pay attention to who is not standing with you." We found there were three Arabs in the class, including the teaching assistant. Later, there were three Muslims up there, including me and not including the Persian guy with the Turkish name who'd introduced himself to me the week before. He met my gaze levelly, nonchalantly as the professor instructed us to "pay attention to who is not standing with you." There were about a dozen people up there at the middle of the lawn when she called for those with disabilities, whether they were physical or learning or God knows what else. And even though, as I've mentioned before, hearing loss is a part of my life but doesn't define who I am, I thought, What the hell, and walked up to join them. When she called for those who had grown up in working-class households, I stayed back and marveled at the sea of people that pushed forward.
When she called for those who had ever been arrested or been in jail, we all held our collective breath. Eight students walked up – two were African American, most were white and there were surprisingly more women up there than any of us had expected. When she called for the Asian American/API group, we walked to the middle, then turned back to see who remained beind, letting out a round of laughter because the majority of the class was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us. A non-Asian student later referred to us as "the mass of the class."
It was an extraordinary way to get a visual sample of the class demographics. There were people walking up for categories I never would have expected by looking at them – a simple reminder not to judge one another.
The second activity was back indoors. We had two minutes to individually complete the following exercise:
1. As a _____, what I want you to know about me is _____.My quick answers:
2. As a _____, what I never want to see, hear, or to have happen again is _____.
3. As a _____, what I expect from you as an ally is _____.
1. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, what I want you to know about me is I choose to cover my hair, I am not oppressed, my ethnic clothing is not called "pajamas," I am not a terrorist, my nationality is American, and I'm versatile not confused [thank you, Fathima!]The fun part was when we got segregated into groups based on our racial/ethnic identity, to share our answers. The other students in my South Asian group were all non-Muslim Indians, and it was interesting to note that my response was the only one dealing mainly with religion. Not to say that non-Muslim Indians aren't religious, but that was an observation nonetheless. And then we had to choose someone from the group as a spokesperson, to combine a few of our answers and read them to the class. "I nominate her," said one of the guys, pointing at me. "Hers sounds complicated."
2. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, what I never want to see, hear, or to have happen again is laws passed to limit my personal right to wear my headscarf, the Gujarat riots, terrorist attacks including those of September 11th, people being victimized or labeled because of outer appearances
3. As a Pakistani Muslim woman, what I expect from you as an ally is tolerance, acceptance, asking for explanations up-front instead of assuming, and respect for my individual right to practice my religion
"Thanks a lot," I laughed.
The professor called this process of sharing with the class "sanctuary speak-outs." It was a powerful experience, not only reading my group's answers but also listening to the statements recited by other groups. What made it even more meaningful is that, at the end of each group's list, the entire class was asked to repeat back whatever they had heard, thus effectively validating the group's experiences and declarations. A Filipino student simply announced, "What I expect from you as an ally is to open my fridge." When pressed for an explanation, he said his measure of a really good friend is that the first thing the person does when he walks into his house is open the refrigerator and help himself to food. This level of comfort, disregard for useless social niceties, ease in one another's presence, and "feeling right at home-ness" is something he wishes more people would aspire to in relationships with one another.
You're all welcome to open my fridge any day. There's a lot of cheese and fruit juice in there. And the kitchen cupboard has two boxes of chocolate truffles, too, if you're interested.
Use the comment box to fill in your own blanks for #1-3. What do you have to say for yourself?