July 1, 2003
This past year I was selected to be a Resident Assistant here at Ashland University. According to the job description, I am primarily supposed to help foster the school’s “living learning environment.” In other words, I mediate freshmen roommate conflicts and put in work orders. To prepare for these hefty responsibilities, I was required to participate in seven days of RA training at the end of August. The week was designed to teach the staff their duties and bind them into a cohesive unit.
By the end of the week, the programming had been more or less successful in its ends. We had learned the ins and outs of our jobs, and we were becoming friends with one another. There is something about mutual suffering that brings people together—even the social events were dull – “forced fun” one attendee termed it. The weather had been hot and the sessions tedious. To break the monotony, the directors shipped us off for an overnight retreat at Camp Nuhop, a recreational facility a few miles from Ashland. The purpose was more for enjoyment and relaxation than anything else.
The first day was spent having fun and hanging out on the campground, but on the second day, we had to have one more “educational” activity to wrap up the week. A “Culture-Diversity” session was listed on the itinerary. The two young women organizing it gathered us in the camp’s dining hall, and adopted very grave tones as they arranged us for a “game.” We were warned that some of us might experience feelings of “deep guilt” during the process, but we were encouraged to “be aware,” and wait to see what would happen. In my experience, when people tell you something like that, they’re usually trying to get you to feel guilty about something.
The leaders arranged us into a straight line across the room and had each of us hold hands with our neighbor. They told us that we would be asked a series of questions. If we could answer yes, we ought to take a step forward. First question: “Is the current president of the United States a member of your race?” The bias of the exercise soon became even more blatant. We were asked, “Can you receive a scholarship without people thinking you received it due to your race or gender?” Incidentally, we were not asked if we had received any scholarships for those reasons. The rest of the questioning continued in a similar manner.
The final result isn’t difficult to guess. Each successive step in the affirmative carried all of the white males to the front of the room and the white females to the middle. Blacks and other minorities were left at the back. “Don’t worry,” the directors told those at the front. “It’s not your fault. You are living with the consequences of a system you did nothing to create. It’s just important for you to understand that such a system does exist.” Gee, thanks.
The effect on the group’s mood was immediate. An awkward silence had fallen over the room—a quiet the “game” coordinators attributed to sober reflections on the injustice of the world. They were half-right. We were then broken up into circles to discuss our “emotional responses” to what had happened. The damage that had just been wrought then became obvious. Students who had been amiably mixing with one another the entire week broke up into self-segregating enclaves. A group of black students gathered in the corner. Another cluster, this one nearly all female migrated to the other side of the room. The white men didn’t move at first. Most of them stood around, isolated for a moment, not sure what to do, too uncomfortable even to look anyone in the eye. Eventually, they would timidly approach this group or that, usually seating themselves on the fringes of the circle. The collective dynamic, which had been developing all week was squelched in under ten minutes. Nearly two hours passed before the jovial and friendly tone of the place returned.
I mentioned my misgivings to the facilitator of my small group. She interpreted my objections as an implicit defense or a denial of racism. One black member of our party chimed in with a few incidents of racially-based mistreatment in his own personal experience, some of which had occurred in Ashland (not the university but the town). I knew this young man, and I felt for him, but not because a recent exercise in political correctness had told me to. I had worked with him through a few different campus organizations and thought highly both of his work and his character, and it pained me to know that he was treated unjustly at times. Ironically, what had just taken place was only the reinforcement of a way of thinking that compels people to look at other human beings as members of particular races and genders rather than as individuals possessing merits and virtues and even faults.
I myself am far from thinking that streaks of unwarranted prejudice and racially-based injustice don’t linger in America. However, I do wonder at the prudence of “awareness raising” educational programs which only divide and cause resentment or ill will where respectful communities have begun to flourish. The group of RAs would have been better left to attain “racial understanding” by continuing to cultivate the natural friendships that had already begun to grow.
Alyssa Guthrie is a senior from Greenwood, Indiana, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy.