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Icon reading NEWFor more dialogue on timely social issues, please check-out "Big Talk," a student initiative for conversations on-line about the BIG questions in life.







"So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole world."


During Orientation Week 2007, guest speaker Steve Birdine gave new students the opportunity to write down questions about diversity on an index card. While there is no way for us to answer all the questions, we would like to take the time to share some of those questions and offer an opinion. The opinions expressed below in response to these questions are solely those of the Director of Multicultural Affairs, Catherine Clack.


  1. What can be done at home to better help race relations with close minded individuals?
    • It seems to me, the first problem is that the individual(s) in question are close minded. If people are not open to change, it's very difficult to find a means of having an impact. I wouldn't expect much with folks like that. Having said that, I firmly believe that living an example is the best teacher. In other words, don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Are your close friendships multicultural, or does everyone look like you? When students in ADVANCE travel together, we are most always confronted by someone remarking on what a diverse group we are. They see us laughing and working together and it has an impact. Do you have diverse guests at your home? Too often, not only residential segregation prevents this, but we do this because of our own social circles. What is it that allows us to casually socialize with those of a different culture, but causes us to be reluctant to invite them into our homes? Speak up! In the face of hatred, apathy and/or silence will be interpreted as accceptance. Simply asking a friend to not use the word "faggot," or explaining why a "joke" struck you as racist or sexist, has impact. It's not always easy, but stepping outside your own personal comfort zone can make a lasting impression.
  2. What exactly is the purpose of Affirmative Action?
    • Boy, this was the question of the year. People have so many ways of defining and scapegoating it. President Lyndon Baines Johnson noted: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." We passed laws against discrimination, but we had not changed the hearts and minds of man. Without those changes, their remained a need to redress the effects of discrimination. The solution was Affirmative Action, which essentially is an active effort to improve employment or educational opportunities for minorities and women, and can include efforts to promote the progress of other disadvantaged groups (i.e. the disabled, Vietnam veterans, gays and lesbians). It typically involves a statement of non-discrimination (see Rice's statement). Contrary to what is often taught, Affirmative Action does not include quotas, nor does it require someone to hire a less or unqualified applicant, thus, if properly utilized, does not reverse discriminate. Unfortunately, we still do not have equal access in this country, especially when it comes to education. In order to do away with Affirmative Action, we must really ensure that disadvantaged groups will no longer face employment and educational discrimination, which means we have to eliminate discrimination. Until then, Affirmative Action still has a necessary role in our country.
  3. How can I deal with a mother who considers all cultures and persons other than her own dangerous and not worth interacting with?
    • Hmmm. . .intolerant parents can be a very touchy area. Your mother probably has a strong history of negative interaction with another culture and her reaction is understandably one of caution and distrust. It is likely, then, that only personal interactions can help her overcome her concerns. I would hate to put you at odds with your mother, but constant conversation and communication is going to be paramount. Respectfully explain why you might disagree with her views. Point out issues that support your views. Help her get acquainted with your diverse group of friends so that she might, perhaps, become more comfortable with difference.
  4. Why do people have to compromise their own culture in order to assimilate?
    • Ahhh. . . there in lies the problem with assimilation. In order to fully assimilate, one has to give up their own culture, heritage, language and traditions and adopt those of the dominant culture. For me, that's a huge problem. Just how intersting do you suppose this country would be if we eliminated the elements of other cultures? No cultural foods (and as a huge fan of Thai food, this alone would make me nuts) or celebrations. We have Lunar New Year, Soul Night, Posada, Colores Latinos, Dhamaka and other cultural celebrations on our campus on an annual basis. They are marvelous vehicles for introducing and educating others to the cultures of our world. You don't hear many people these days, outside the discussion on language, pushing for assimilation. Most have come to accept that we live in a successfully pluralistic society which makes for a much more dynamic civilization.
  5. To what extent should cultures assimilate?
    • I believe cultures should assimilate to the point that allows them to be contributing members of a society, as well as live within the laws of that society. For me, that means that the language of the society should be adopted, but that the native tongue should by all means be retained. Cultures, traditions and language should not only be retained, but passed on. I mention living withing the law because there are societies, as an example, which allow for a daughter who has brought "shame" to a family to be summarily killed. And yet this is thankfully a violation of the law in this country.
  6. Why is calling someone a "nigger" OK if they're black? What's the deal with the word anyway?
    • You've touched on a timely and complex issue here, one that continues to be debated in numerous avenues. I would first caution against the tendency to generalize (which I doubt was your intention), as it is not acceptable to all African Americans to be called a nigger or even use the word. I am one of those African Americans who abhors the use of the word by anyone. Which brings me to your second question: What's the deal with the word anyway? While this word can be found in some older works for literature (by Conrad, Twain and Dickens for instance) as "simply" meaning a black or dark-skinned person, its most pronounced and prolific use was, and is, as a word that expresses extreme racial hatred and bigotry, and thus ranks (according to Webster's Dictionary) as "perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English." There are those who claim the word has been reclaimed by African Americans, despite the fact that most African Americans do not want to reclaim the word, and the notion that if the word were truly reclaimed, anyone would be able to use it. Others assert that because the spelling and pronunciation of the word has been altered to "nigga," it is thus an acceptable term. You will find those who argue both sides of that issue as well. My personal feeling remains, however, that the word, in any form, is one of degradation and hatred, and has no place or value in our society.
  7. If we get our stereotypes of black people from the media, how do we go about learning new perspectives?
    • How cool it is that you are now in college where you have the opportunity to learn, first hand, from your African Americans peers. This may require you stepping outside of your comfort zone, however, if your close friendships or roommates are not African American. Join the Black Student Association; I can assure you will be welcome. Attend Soul Night in the spring. Sit at a table with some African American students at lunch. Take a class. Attend ADVANCE meetings on Friday's (12 noon, Miner Lounge, lunch provided) where all sorts of cultural issues are explored and debated. In short, take advantage of the wealth of diversity that is right outside your door.
  8. How do you best relate to people with different/strong religious beliefs?
    • This is one of those times when the Golden Rule (which can be found in some form in all the major world religions) could truly help. Patience and understanding are called for, as unless someone is exploring different faiths, you are not going to be able to change someone's strong religious beliefs. Challenging those views will more often than not end up with an argument. You may have to agree to disagree, which needs to be acceptable. The Dalai Lama said something I think bears mentioning here: "All major religous traditions carry basically the same message, that is love, compassion and forgiveness . . . the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives."
  9. How do you deal with naive white people?
    • I must admit this question made me grin. I really appreciate the honesty behind it, and if you are a person of color in this country, this can be an almost daily challenge. My general rule to try to be patient, but also very open and honest. Frankness needs to be accomplished without being blunt, lest you risk completely shutting that person down. I had to pause, though, when I reflected even more deeply on this question. There is a sort of sincere naivete and then there is intentional naivete, and I have much less patience for those who choose the intentional route. Nonetheless, we all have a role in educating others, no matter how tiresome it can become, which means we need to patiently answer questions about ourselves and our culture. Embrace it, because it's still very necessary.
  10. Can the diversity tension truly be overcome?
    • Wow! I really hope so. I'd hate to think I was wasting my life and my time combating bias, ignorance and racism, if there was no hope of getting past it. I'm hopeful, however, because every year I get to work with some of the brightest young minds this country has to offer, and across the cultural spectrum, I find students fed-up with racism, sexism, homophoia, religious intolerance and xenophobia. I find students who are active in working to find and institute solutions to these problems. And though we still find the occasional "knucklehead" in our midst, by and large we are a diverse community living and growing with mutual respect and civility. If everyone makes the commitment, through hard work and a great deal of introspection, we will ge there!