Confronting power, privilege, race through intergroup dialogue

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Author: Damien Mendieta

 

The psychology department’s Intergroup Dialogue course on race and ethnicity offers students the rare opportunity to leave their comfort zone and hold open conversations about race, oppression and privilege. The dialogues themselves are small groups led by trained student co-facilitators, who use discussions, reflective writing assignments and readings to foster self and group-awareness. A long-term goal of the course is to promote a community committed to social justice. However, dialogue is anything but another four-unit course. Instead, students must critically analyze their own behavior and engage in painfully honest conversations with one another in order to expand their knowledge of race and racial oppression. At a school that proclaims its commitment to multiculturalism, the dialogue program is an important way to transform Occidental’s call for diversity into a movement for social justice on a campus-wide scale.

Despite the apparent progress that American society has made from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the election of the first black president in 2008, the contemporary realities of race and ethnicity remain a taboo topic for even the most engaged dialogue participant. While the limited size and structure of the dialogue course ensures safety and respect for all participants, it also inadvertently restricts critical conversations about race to similar environments, which are few and far between in today’s race-conscious world. Blame, guilt, confusion and anxiety are but a few of the emotions that regularly surface in a dialogue discussion, making each conversation on the topic difficult. But all those emotions point towards a greater underlying question: why should anyone be afraid to talk about their own experience of race?

The discomfort that comes along with addressing racism is due in large part to the fact that it forces individual students to confront the ways in which they are shaped by racism, and an even more bitter pill to swallow, the way in which they perpetuate racism. Ignorance, in the form of rarely-challenged and well-established generalizations about minorities and ethnic groups, prompts us to dismiss racism as something other than one of the most influential and omnipotent forces in society today. Racial slurs and race-based discrimination may not be rampant as they once were during America’s not-too-distant Jim Crow era, but racism has adapted to changing circumstances and now endures in the form of passive oppression. 

This oppression continues to fester whenever we ignore racism in casual “jokes” about race, generalizations about racial groups and the ridiculous assumption that all individuals are treated equally by social and political institutions.

On campus, the everyday manifestations of modern-day racism lack the attention they deserve. Why must we brand Pauley Hall the lone multicultural center of our residence halls? Doing so creates an isolated safe zone of cultural celebration and racial discussion that cannot exist throughout the other 11 residence halls. Like a dialogue, whatever insightful discussion occurs in places like the Multicultural Hall stay there. It takes an enormous amount of courage and confidence to engage in racial discussion with others and even more so with those who haven’t had any experiences around racial awareness. Beyond discussion of race specifically, the same holds true for conversations about sexism, gender roles and the psychological and social effects of oppression. If Occidental continues to boast its supposed diversity to crowds of admitted students, these issues must be brought to the forefront of our campus psyche through sustained and open conversations.

Dialogue serves to expand personal reflection upon one’s perspective. Intergroup Dialogue calls for the analysis of the development of our beliefs and misconceptions, while ensuring that judgment remains absent in the dialogue environment. Critics proclaim that dialogues are flawed because they focus on thinking rather than doing. However, isn’t thinking already doing something? It would be foolish to preach one’s teachings from dialogue, if one has not learned to embrace those ideas after meticulous analysis and personal introspection. For a student of the dialogue course, it seems as though one semester is not nearly enough time to develop a concrete and wholeheartedly-accepted idea on race and what can be done to stop the oppression.      

 

Damian Mendieta is an undeclared first-year. He can be reached at mendieta@oxy.edu.

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