Friday, May 13, 2011

Popping bubbles

Today was the first day of training for the Fall seminar fellows (our first year program's peer advisers), and the very talented Z (a past seminar fellow) led us through a workshop on diversity. We began with "trigger words" - words which elicit an emotional or even a physical reaction in us (not only negative). Some of these were familiar stereotyped terms of abuse. Some are words of praise and love. The more interesting ones were words whose hidden judgmentalism wasn't obvious (hipster), or words which to some were virtues and to others terms of sanction (like ambitious and, interestingly, slutty). And then there were neologisms (trustafarian, fasian). The board filled and filled. (Later I added my first year program trigger word: retention.)

The next part of the exercise is called "Circles of My Multicultural Self." Participants write four "dimensions of their identity" in bubbles, recall times when it was a good thing to be so identified, or a painful thing, all culminating in a sentence which incorporates one of the identity words I am (a/an) ___ but I am NOT (a/an) ___. Not many got as far as the last (or were willing to share them), which was a pity, as that's the most interesting. (We did get I'm from the South but not conservative, I'm single but not lonely, I use drugs but I'm not irresponsible, and - twice! - I'm Jewish but not cheap.) People preferred to share their "bubble words," which Z had too generously allowed them to multiply at will. Some had a dozen or more bubble-words, and one had bubbles sprouting from bubbles. This was interesting in its own way, but let us avoid the issue of having to live with other people's judgments, with categories whose meaning you don't choose and whose applicability to you may be beyond your control. (Unsurprisingly, only one white participant cited "white," and she had been to a high school where white students were a minority.)

Only when I insisted we do the storytelling part did it get interesting, and serious. One student told of being "paralyzed" when a five-year-old pointed to her on the street and used a racial slur. The privileged fantasy of endless self-invention quickly evaporated.

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