The Chips & Salsa That Didn't Happen: Issues of Race & Diversity at the iSchool
On May 5, 2009, students sent an email to Student Services at the Information School, requesting that a Cinco de Mayo study break flyer be removed due to the caricature of a mariachi used in the advertisement. Meetings between Student Services, iSchool administration, the Diversity Committee, and the iDiversity student group ensued, during which several topics emerged: racism, intent, offensiveness, heritage, historical truth, iSchool demographics, political correctness, and discrimination among others. Emotions ran high as all involved were required to talk about something most people prefer to avoid: racism as it is occurs everyday.
As a Mexican-American, it is impossible for me to explain why the caricature was ‘offensive’ without talking about racism. I was not personally ‘offended’ by the caricature, in the sense that the odor of rotten food might offend the sense of smell, or in the sense that ‘f-ck,’ ‘sh-t’ and ‘r-cist’ might offend those with sensitive ears. Racism is not simply something that offends and can be avoided through cleansing or omission. Racism is a systematic social phenomenon that recurs through a myriad of social behaviors, actions and attitudes, thereby becoming embedded in the social structures and institutions we live by. In that sense, racism is pervasive, commonplace, and insidiously manageable. It is part of our shared American history that we, at this point in time, live in a racist society.
All of us have developed ways that we manage everyday racism in our own lives, whether through humor, avoidance, engagement, or pretense. One strategy I have is to ‘choose my battles.’ We cannot all bear the responsibility of ‘stopping racism’ every time we see it. That is simply not feasible. One reason why it is not feasible is because discussing racism with people who have different understandings and experiences with race from our own can surface emotional and mental distress that most of us are unprepared to deal with.
It is good to know that a language exists that helps us to talk deeply and productively about race and society. Scholars commit their lives to the study of race. (Indeed, esteemed professor Ronald Takaki died this past week, and will be remembered for his key contributions to the understanding of race in America.) Learning about concepts such as micro-aggression, white privilege, racial discrimination, internalized oppression, and institutionalized racism is one way to begin to understand the nuance of what is referred to as racism. Reflecting on these concepts in the context of our own experiences is one way to begin to understand our reactions when issues of race unexpectedly manifest in our everyday lives. Reflecting, listening, and discussing these concepts with others who have different experiences from our own is one way to begin to inform otherwise discriminatory attitudes. Not every dialogue about race will result in change for everyone, but it will result in an education that gives people the choice to reconsider their attitudes about race and diversity in America.
So what is diversity and how do we celebrate it if not through the awareness of what makes people different? How can we understand difference if we do not understand the meaning and implications of power, privilege, and human flourishing? These are deep political and moral considerations. Think about that the next time you attend a diversity potluck where people sample various ethnic foods, a street fair where people purchase saris to hang in their dorm room windows, a museum where people peer through glass cases at ‘primitive’ artifacts from a conquered culture. We must first begin to recognize each other as human beings with distinct cultural identities. Some of us have identities of resistance. As students, when we are comfortable enough with the language to understand the need for resistance, we will be less likely to scoff, turn away, and comfort ourselves in a self-serving worldview. Read, fellow students, think critically (and watch some Dave Chapelle.)
What came out of the post-Cinco de Mayo discussions? An awareness that we need more dialogue about race, diversity and social justice at the iSchool, not only through sponsored extracurricular activities, but in classes, offices, and between faculty, staff, and students. iDiversity has been hosting a Pedagogy of the Oppressed reading group, and is planning to host a similar reading group next year. Those of you who are on the Diversity mailing list may have seen the announcements about campus events related to diversity issues. We want iSchool students to build connections with campus diversity groups, find support elsewhere, and be supported here. (It never hurts to have lots of friends…) That being said, of course more work around diversity should be done. But social change takes time, and more than that, takes people who change the patterns in their own lives.
Thanks for reading. Send me your thoughts. Much respect to you, my iSchool peeps.