What's Race Got to Do with It?


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Making Personal Bonds

DAVE: My initial goal is for all the students to let down their guard enough and bond with each other enough so that they have a human interaction with somebody that they normally would not have—different than they may have ever had so that they interact vulnerably and on an equal level. Because, you know, you can interact vulnerably or on a human level with your maid or with your gardener, you don’t learn that much.  But if you interact with somebody you see as your peer – who’s very different from you – and you see them on your level and you feel or understand some of their suffering in a way that you haven’t, or some of the challenges they deal with, it really makes an impact.  Students will say, “oh, I’ve heard these statistics a thousand times,” or “I’ve seen this on TV.”  But it’s not the same as when you make a personal relationship with somebody you see as somebody who could be your next door neighbor, your friend, your work colleague, your brother or sister (if it’s fortunate to get that close). 

Understanding Institutional Discrimination

DAVE: The other thing I want them to do, particularly the privileged students, is understand institutional discrimination – is go beyond, uh, prejudice of just thinking about “well, I’m not racist because I don’t dislike so-and-so” or what my personal feelings are to understand what people on the bottom understand from their experience, that there’s all kinds of systems set up that have nothing to do with anybody’s feelings and will just go along if nobody does anything to change them and have some vision of that so they can move towards what it would be like to change some of the things that are making the friendships so hard, that they really would like to have.

What Opens the Door?

QUESTION: What do you think opens the door for students?

DAVE:  That emotional experience of the connecting with someone on an equal level, that you respect and like, and suddenly hitting you…that level of, “my god, that’s what you deal with day to day?  I just have no idea.”  At some level, of course, they knew.  But they never let themselves know until that point, and I think that’s the key piece that opens up the heart so that then you can think in a new way about, you know.  And that’s when the readings come in, and the more didactic discussion of, “well, what’s really going on here?”  And because these kids are so sophisticated and so smart, they know the language of…they may even know how to talk about institutional racism or what’s there, but you just see this disconnect. They don’t see that they are part of it, that their parents are a part of it, that they could do anything to change it, that they…you don’t see any motivation to want to do anything to change it because they haven’t been touched in the heart by what it’s doing to people they might care about, respect, or love.

Facilitator Role

DAVE: Our role really is facilitators, and we don’t want to protect people from being bruised.  We want people to have the opportunity to make themselves vulnerable and go away angry, and go away feeling misunderstood, and go away maybe even feeling like they want to drop out of the class.  We don’t want people to feel really hurt or really ganged up on, or in someway unfairly treated. 

So that’s our fundamental role, is to kind of make sure that people are protected, reminding people that what’s said here is confidential, to create the safe space.  Our role is also to provide context, and usually at the student’s request.  Once in a while, we’ll do it on our own, but usually the students will say, “Well, how do students from other classes handle this?”  Or if there has been a particularly difficult interaction, to come back and give some perspective of, “You’re feeling like this is just your personal issue,” or that you just are mad at this one particular person, but “how does this reflect your life out in daily society or something you’ve dealt with all your life?”  I think those are the main functions I see for us – as sort of the arbiter or the safety valve, the person who kind of knows overall what’s going on and will make sure that the thing doesn’t fall apart or go crazy, or that doesn’t just drag and nothing happens. 

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Raw Emotions

JERLENA:  Dave and I have had situations occur where the class was so…or the conversations were so emotional, people were so vulnerable and raw—people were angry—that we were wondering if a few would come back next week.  So of course when that occurs we’d try to do some intervention in between and talk through because you know, as soon as we feel like “I’m never gonna go back there again.  Why am I putting myself out like this?”…and Dave and I think that this is great—this is where we want them to be, because I think that this is what happens in society.  We get angry, we get frustrated, we get impatient, we feel vulnerable, we feel guilty, and we walk away…because what’s compelling us to stay?  You know, what is compelling any of us to wanna have conversations like this?  Where is the award or the merit…you know, in life?  To be able to have this conversation?  So one of the things that Dave and I try to do is to, over a course of time, is to hopefully to be able to provide the opportunity and the place for students to ask that question themselves and come up with, hopefully, an answer that makes sense for whatever spectrum—political spectrum, religious spectrum, ethnic spectrum—they come from…that it makes sense for them.

The Co-Facilitator Relationship

JERLENA: Who the facilitators are is critical. Um, and I think they need to be comfortable with each other, because these issues aren't easy ones to talk about, and they are very personal. Because one of the things about the course, and certainly about our facilitation, is that it is not something outside the student experience. And in fact, we talk about the student being the curriculum. So therefore the facilitators are also part of that curriculum. So we bring all of our history, all of our perceptions about race, class and gender, and inclusion. All of that comes into our relationship.

And so often times what you don't see in the class is Dave and I meeting and talking about our own assumptions and his challenging my attitudes and beliefs about certain things and vice versa. So I would say that the facilitative role between the individuals - their relationship is really critical, because if - students will perceive - as well as we would not be comfortable if we felt that we were so um different in our philosophy or beliefs. And in a lot of ways we are different, which makes it interesting, even politically. I think that one of us would be described as a little more conservative than the other. Now, it would be funny - you probably could guess which one, but you might be wrong. But that has been, I think, extremely helpful because we can't be on one side of the spectrum to be effective as well.

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First Stage: Getting to Know One Another

DAVE: The class usually develops, and it’s structured intentionally (from experience over time), in maybe three or four stages.  The first stage is that people really do need to get to know each other as individuals and get the focus off of the race/class/gender differences.  So we spend, as you’re seeing, an in-depth time for people to talk about their biography, talk about who they are in very personal terms as unique individuals. 

Of course we include some questions about, “when did you first realize you were different?” to raise the issues that everyone’s kind of chomping at the bit or preparing in the back of their minds to talk about, but not initially.  And the homework also is set up to be bonding, and not threatening.  To say “what music do you love? what poetry do you love?”, connect with someone you don’t know, come back and talk about it; do icebreakers that crack people up and make people feel like they’re in elementary school again.  That’s the first stage—to just get people happy they’re showing up there, thinking there’s interesting people. 

Now, of course, everybody also is in the back of their mind having their stereotypes that I hope they’re writing down in their journals: “Well, there’s the typical so and so,” or “There’s somebody who’s angry.”  Or, you know, whatever thing is on their mind.  But that’s in the back of their minds.  In the forefront is forming a group, having people let down their guard. 

Second Stage: Group Presentations

DAVE: Then we go into the different ethnic groups and let each ethnic group come up with role plays (with our help) and run the class for a part of the class, to give a sense of “what it’s like to be from my ethnic group,” and assign homework for students to come into a space of theirs—something they love or respect—that’s all Asian, for instance.  And be the only non-Asian that’s there participating in that—for an experiential, kind of.  And hopefully the student takes them along to it.  So they may bring them to their home, to a family gathering—which is ideal because that’s really intimate and personal and opens the students up.  Or they may take them to a church that’s all of one ethnicity.  Or they may take them to a student group on campus, or whatever. 

And we’ll go through four or five different ethnicities, depending on who’s in the class…and including mixed-race, talk about those experiences.  And then we skip to the kind of class, power and privilege—oh, and homophobia—and “how do all these things kind of tie in together?”  And get students thinking about the broader picture. 

Third Stage: The Big Picture

DAVE:  We talk about the broader picture at the end, because without students forming the bonds with each other and letting down the emotional barriers and psychological barriers, and having the specific experiences around “a girlfriend with mine dealt with this, a black student who I like in the class has shared with me this experience,” they aren’t ready in any meaningful way to generalize more to what’s institutional: What does that mean for all women?  What does that mean for all black people or people of color?  It’s almost a developmental step that people need to go through, emotionally as well as…and it’s…

I don’t want to be pretentious, you know, ‘cause not everybody’s gonna have that deep of an experience, but even if they aren’t personally having that experience, if they see other members in the class, it gives them vicariously a sense of opening up and of “wow.”   They’ll go away and a lot of them will say, “I think about this class all the time.” Particularly more privileged students will say that.  And some of that gets written down in the journal. 

And a lot of it gets discussed outside of class, with the students with each other because you have those moments of upset, or emotional “a-ha,” or confusion, or whatever.  And if the bonds are there and the safety’s there, they’ll keep processing it.  They’ll keep talking with each other.  They’ll talk with their roommates and the roommates will think, “what are you, crazy?”  You know, but they’re really…in some ways I know this best with the privileged students…that they’re processing some of this stuff for the first time in a new way. 

What Engages Students the Most

DAVE: The lynch pin of the course is having the students lives be the curriculum.  So having the students run part of each course based on their own history and on their own experience is what engages them the most.  It’s what’s the most interesting, it’s what—you’ll see everybody lean forward when people are talking about their own personal experience, their own lives, their own trials and tribulations.  Everybody’s interested in each other’s stories, and to do it as a group…that’s how we discover the most.  A lot of the homeworks, a lot of the exercises, a lot of the deepest learnings, have not been something that I’ve come up with or that Jerlena’s come up with, but that we’ve helped to guide students from past students’ experience, but that they’ll build on with each other. 

So it’s really the thing that engages students the most—is each other.  And it’s, frankly, the thing that people are the most excited about coming to Berkeley about.  They come here…they say, “because we’ve heard that it’s political,” you know, “it’s radical”—which isn’t particularly true, at least not the way they think it is.  But that it’s diverse and there is enough diversity here compared to a lot of other students’ lives.  And we have to set up the structures for them to just take advantage of that diversity.

Who Benefits?

DAVE: I used to worry, and still do sometimes, that it was only the privileged students that were benefitting from it. But the feedback that I get over time is that students of color, working-class students, get as much out of it for a couple of reasons: one, because they’re learning about each other in ways that they might not have; two, because they’re all college students, so they’re all going through an identity development stage, so if they’re able to express something emotionally or articulate a thought to a group who normally wouldn’t listen to them or to their own community, that’s part of their growth. And lastly because they’ll say, look, I really need to know how to deal with all different kinds of people. That’s who I’m gonna be working with, that’s where I’m gonna be – that’s already where I am. This is a great forum where I can feel in the majority for once and I can feel a different kind of permission and respect than I might get where I’m the only one.

Impact of the Course

DAVE: Sometimes at the end when people go around and evaluate the course orally – strengths and what they’ve gotten out of it – you’re surprised at the depth of the impact that’s occurred. But a lot of times with students, you won’t know, I won’t know what’s happened with them until I hear many years later. Out of just staying in contact with them over time. And they’ll say oh my gosh this was the most powerful course I took. This was the only time I ever had a significant encounter with somebody so much different from me. I really learned something, I changed my profession because of it. I’ve got three students who are emailing me now – upper middle class white students who are teaching with Teach for America. And they were planning on going in a completely different, high money-making field and the course was what directed them in that direction.

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Origin of the Idea

DAVE: The idea grew out of a desegregation program in Boston, a voluntary desegregation program that I worked with for 8 years. And it was actually a group of inner-city Black parents and suburban white parents who came up with the idea for their kids as a way of voluntarily bringing their high school kids together before busing happened. And their concept was to have half black and half white - there weren't particularly other ethnicities at the time, have 'em come together one day a week at a neutral site - in this case, it was at a church - and do something that would - oh, and have a Black and white teacher - and do something that would unify them and kind of put them on a level playing field together.

So it would be - they'd put on music or a dance performance, and it really taught me a lot and moved me about - particularly for these high school kids who were physically segregated from each other and there was hostility and fear - it was really important, and they were smart to want to set up a situation where the kids would be unself-conscious and lose themselves and form a common bond through doing some activity together. Then once you have that common bond, we both like pizza, you know, whatever kind of small, silly thing, the inevitable race issues come up and you can talk about them, but you have a basis of connection to talk about em with. So that's where the concept came from.

Coming to Berkeley

DAVE: And when I came out here to Berkeley, geez, 19 years ago, I was blown away by what was then twice as diverse of a campus as it is now, but people didn't mix. They kind of stayed in their own ethnic groups, in public spaces, anyway. So we approached Stiles Hall, which has a long history of kind of collaborating and taking initiatives serving University of California students, approached the Ethnic Studies department, and they agreed to co-sponsor this experiment. And initially I followed their idea and we invited in really interesting guest speakers as kind of the outside unifying thing. We had a holocaust survivor, we had people who had been on death row, we had - we went and visited a senior center, we did a Native American sweat lodge, they were all these fascinating activities that we did together. Students loved it, and the piece that was successful from the beginning was recruiting very diverse students who normally would have no contact with each other, and then making a personal bond, having them get to know each other.

But the other piece that happened was that over the course of the first two or three years of the program, students - the main feedback that came back was twofold: one was students really liked that for the first time they were getting a chance to interact with people they normally had no interaction - everyone's drawn to come to Berkeley because it's diverse but the university hadn't set up many - or any that I knew of - structured situations where these diverse people could have a real personal bond and interactional dialogue. So they said, fewer guest speakers. Give us more time to really get to know each other and eventually we cut out all the guest speakers and all the films and everything and just focused activities on the leaders interacting and getting to know each other.

Getting to the Conflict

DAVE: The other piece that they said was, help us get to the conflict earlier. Because it became clear from my past experience with the desegregation program and with this is that you've got to first form - with people from such divergent backgrounds - you've got form personal bonds and trust, and some sense of commonality, and people knowing each other as individuals. But then you've also got to get to the conflict. And what would happen more often than not, it would be the second or third class from the end and there'd finally be a blow-up and students would - might be over some small issue or some big issue, but it related to the underlying race and class and gender differences and it would get heated and they would you know, go - be frustrated and upset, but in the final evaluations they say uh god, we just are getting started, we finally got to the underlying issues and we wish we could have gotten to that earlier. So in addition to getting rid of the guest speakers and the outside films or whatever, and just doing activities to have them get to know each other and increase the interaction amongst each other, we tried to promote - without being artificial - them being able to get to the confrontation and keeping an eye out for it

Make-up of the Class

DAVE: I've learned that, in order to have the underlying conflicts come out, you need a couple of things. And to have a dynamic class - one of the things that's most critical is you need 50 percent of your students at least to be from a working class or poor background. At an elite university like Berkeley, like Harvard, like Stanford, that's hard. There's a lot of focus these days on how few working-class students are getting into elite universities, but that's a challenge. You have to go out and recruit those people, because even if you have a racially diverse group and they're all middle class or upper middle-class, it won't work as well.

Another piece that's central that I learned from the Boston experience is you need to reverse the power dynamics that are out in society in general and on campus in terms of numbers. If you try to conduct a course like this with one or two students of color and the rest white students, it usually doesn't happen. The natural kind of conflict and dialogue doesn't come out. If you have two thirds or more students of color and one third or fewer white students then the white students naturally feel, maybe for the first time in their life many of them, a little on edge and a little not in their I'm running things comfort zone, but kind of like oh wow.


DAVE: So the white students will often ask, am I gonna get bashed? Which they don't, in that sense that they're afraid of, but it indicates that they're not gonna be in their comfort zone. Which is what's necessary for them to learn. being from the more privileged background. And the students of color, uh, naturally bring up - and working class students - naturally bring up issues that are central to them and that are important and that they don't normally communicate to the majority or the dominant group when the numbers are reversed from what they're used to normally. It's just there's power in numbers.

Conditions for Success

DAVE: I think the two things that you oughta work towards, if you were trying to develop a course like this is: 1) to develop enough of a sense of relaxation, comfort and trust—that people can be themselves in a very mixed group, which partly means a lot of joking and laughing and informal interaction with each other…so that you develop the bonds that can make the impact. And the second piece is that growing out of that, you create enough safety and you have enough structure so that some of the real conflict that is there, that you’re not creating but that is just there, emerges. 

And the students—if those two things don’t happen, you’re dissatisfied and the students are dissatisfied at the end of the class.  If there hasn’t been some real bonds of friendship and mutual admiration and respect that have developed across racial and class lines, and if some real moments of conflict haven’t happened, some flare-ups…and they don’t have to be loud flare-ups, they can be just a very quiet, honest, statement from somebody—“I don’t trust white people and my family have never trusted white people”—if that was what somebody genuinely felt.  I’ve had Native American students say that who came off the reservation, and they weren’t loud—they were just very forthright about it.  And if there’s then a response, if there’s not just silence or looking around or something like that, but then somebody says, “well how can you say that? I didn’t do anything wrong,” or “how can you blame me for…”  if there’s that kind of a genuine back and forth with what people are really thinking and feeling, and what people really say among their own groups with each other, that’s…then you’ve succeeded. 

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Class Issues Underaddressed

DAVE: The thing that has been the most surprising at this university, and as I’ve talked to colleagues across the country—other elite universities—is how powerful socioeconomic class is as a life difference for the students that are at a university and how under-addressed it is.  It’s in some ways the most hidden, and I don’t want to say the most powerful because race is very powerful, but because it’s hidden and because it’s so determined, it’s the surprise of bringing it out.  And a lot of the privileged students assume that everybody is “Hey Joe,” everybody’s “just like me” in terms of being able to take vacations, in terms of just not particularly having a great deal of stress or worry about finances.  And the students who are from low-income backgrounds are kind of in coping mode so that they can’t afford to think a whole lot about the inequities and about how few low-income students there are that they relate to, and about how different their life circumstances are. 

No Back-up

DAVE: The piece that consistently students drop their jaws on, even if they say oh I kind of expected that, is when they put down net family wealth and to see the huge disparity among everybody who they would say, oh – like Chris had said in the class – we’re all the same, we can all be friends, and neat how we can all relate to each other. Usually students – the low-income students will talk about having to send some of their money home, even though they don’t have any money in their own bank account. And in those kinds of discussions, people are blown away, because people from privileged backgrounds can’t even imagine that they would have to help take care of their family or their brothers and sisters. They’re just so used to, you know, I’m at the center, if I’m in trouble Mom and Dad will bail me out. And the fact that you not only have to work all the time and try to manage your academics but that you have no backup. If things fall apart, it’s you. It’s drop out and get a job or do something.

Things are so different for this generation now. It’s almost –  if you’re not in college or haven’t been in college in the last 4-6 years, and dealt with the level of competition that there is to get into college, the fear that I’m gonna be left out, that there’s gonna be nothing here for me, and the lack of any kind of social fallback. You know, you feel obligated to your community if you’re low-income minority and you feel like you want to help improve them but there’s nothing to fall back on. There’s no kind of strong social structure.

Wealth and Race

DAVE: The connection between race and wealth, again on this elite campus and others, is that most of the people who are low income are students of color. There are lots of white working-class students but they don't make it to elite universities. So that the perception that gets reinforced is that all white people are wealthy and all people of color are poor. It's not at all true, but the numbers are really very, very small. And to the contrary, the median income has gone up $5,000 in five years, so the median income for white students at this university is around $125,000 a year, which is considerably higher, maybe three times as high as what the median income for Black and Chicano students.

Lack of Economic Diversity

DAVE: On the campus of Berkeley, the majority of any ethnic group is middle class or higher, socio-economically.  So if a student’s coming—if a black student or a Latino student is coming from a low-income background, they’re not in the majority in their ethnic group.  And for many of them, that’s an adjustment.  Because they went to high schools—unless they were on scholarship and went to a private school—they went to high schools where almost everbody around them was low-income and minority.  So it’s a whole different thing for them to be on an elite campus, not only with elite white students and Asian students, but elite—or at least more middle class—students from their own ethnic group.  And if students of color, who were surrounded by white people and were from more upper-middle class backgrounds and they’re coming to this campus, they’re really—in a different way—searching out their identity.  This may be the first time they’ve been able to connect up with people from their own ethnicity and figure out how they fit in, and some of them may get holier than thou and be super Chicano or critical of others for not towing the line enough. 

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Tiptoeing around the Issues

DAVE: I think this class is going typically, in terms of first third/first half…a politeness and hesitancy, particularly among the more privileged students, to really say what they’re thinking and to gauge what they say…and then a hesitancy from the less privileged students to be as direct and blunt and frustrated as they feel.  So there’s a kind of tiptoeing that almost always goes on in the process, and it’s just a question of at what point somebody takes the risk to make a break and say something real.  Real—that’s kind of critical, but say something that’s uncensored and that isn’t sort of…they’re thinking, “how’s this gonna come across?” or “are people gonna dislike me?”  Or “am I gonna be stereotyped?” So this class broke about the halfway point, which is pretty typical.  Sometimes they go earlier, and sometimes they take longer. 

JERLENA: And I think the factors that contribute to whether or not those kinds of dialogues and discussions—the more provocative ones—that happen earlier have a lot to do with the makeup of the class and where a student is in their own development as students.  So I think this year we have probably more first-year students than we’ve ever had before, and so the dynamic that Dave is talking about tends to be more prevalent.

Planting a Seed

DAVE: If we’re doing anything true and just and right with the class, we’re just replicating reality.  We’re just giving what’s really there—what exists in society—a chance to be heard and experienced in a way that it normally isn’t.  And maybe for many of the students, the first time.  I heard some of the freshman students of color saying, “I feel so proud for the first time to stand up for myself and say what I really feel about race to one of you”—to, you know, somebody white.  And maybe this is the first time for—and also the Asian young woman, she got included in the privileged side in this last discussion, as you saw—for them to experience a conflict or having to deal with the fact that they do have privilege for the first time.  If they’re lucky and we’re lucky, they’ll have either continued relationships with the people in this class or have other relationships with people who are from very different backgrounds to them.  And they’ll run into the same issues.  And they’ll say, “wow, I sorta remember this.”  And “jeez, it’s similar.  Wow.”  And, you know, put some connection together.


DAVE: [P]art of what you do as a facilitator is you want some of that personalization.  It is a very personal issue and there’s personal benefit and there’s personal responsibility to be taken for that—for the benefits that one’s been given and one hasn’t earned.  And in the inequitable situation of society, people should be defensive and ashamed about it if they’re being honest, but not too much so.  Because if you totally personalize it, you’re missing the point.  And the broader point that we’ll talk about today is that it’s an institution, it’s a setup.  Whether you’re defensive or not isn’t particularly going to change the situation…whether you’re in denial or an advocate.  It’s a much broader situation that will just go on without some active efforts to change it…to change hiring patterns, to change housing patterns, to change laws, to change people’s hearts and minds, certainly, but in larger groups.

Changing the System

DAVE: You know, one of the hardest things for me, because racism doesn’t affect me everyday, is to take seriously…to absorb that this is real, that it’s not just an emotional interaction, which is the part that I can feel.  You know, the whole “let’s be friends” as opposed to “let’s change the system.”  When I feel happy normally, it’s like, “oh. There’s been a good interaction; there’s been a good dialogue; there’s been a personal or emotional breakthrough.”  But I don’t usually feel the “But yeah, when they walk out the door, are they gonna do anything different?”  What’s the level of commitment?  The world is still very inequitable, and the rich get richer and the poor getting poorer.  Is anything gonna change as a result?  And I think because of butting my head, I feel more a part of, “Wow. Things are not good.”  You know, in terms of power relations.  And they’re only gonna change to the degree that these students were working with and ourselves…take risks and do things that are difficult or may result in some loss…or just a risk. 

Keeping Ourselves Honest

JERLENA: one of the reasons why I can say that maybe I keep coming back to the class and working specifically with Dave as a co-facilitator is because it is not something over here that you come to once a week and you kind of do your facilitating role and you leave.  This dialogue, this class, this time that we have together I think keeps us really honest.  And as much as it does for Dave, it certainly does for me, because even as a woman of color, I have privilege and I need to be reminded every week about that.  I need to be around people that help me keep that in context.  So I think that it’s not something that is kind of, “oh. I’m gonna be doing this class this week.”  It is a constant, twice-a-year, fifteen-sixteen weeks of being in the moment with the students, and keeping us honest about what we say we believe and what we’re actually doing about what we say we believe.

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Setting Realistic Goals

JERLENA:  “what is our—what do we want students to do as a result of this?”  Or “what, then, becomes their kind of value around social equity and social justice?”  That is a large question that I’m not sure can be answered by just this class alone.  What I appreciate about the question, though, is that it is part of the discussion—that central question that we just posed is actually part of the dialogue and the struggle and the question.  So it’s not so much the answer to that question, but it’s the struggle in trying to get to the answer of that question that I think…I think that, with this class, that that is what we are trying to be responsible for. 

Because it is not about coming together for 15 weeks and “now I got my social justice agenda.”  It ain’t gonna happen.  People have come from all different backgrounds with all kinds of values and we just want to say, let’s come talk about that…let’s have the audacity to pull in all these disparate viewpoints, from conservative to liberal, to everything in between, to religious differences, to racial differences, and let’s just talk about what our lives have been like for us.  And let’s have the audacity and the courage to listen.  And you know what?  It’d be wonderful if just one or two students, whether they’re privileged students or not, said, “ok. I really do get this. So therefore, I’ll still be an engineering major.  I still wanna make a lot of money; I’m still gonna go and conquer the world in the corporate world, but I have some understanding about what impact that might have on people who have less privilege than I do.”  And sometimes it’s all we can ask for. 

Managing Expectations

JERLENA:  There’s a need for shifts to happen in our society, in terms of shifts in perspective so that we can have more civil discourse and dialogue.  So my concern is that I don’t think we’re having enough of those conversations, but I do get concerned that the students’ expectations of other students (not even mentioning of themselves)…that this would be the space for, “I’m gonna change that person, I’m gonna make sure they get my point of view.”  You know, “I want them to be a lot more liberal like I am,” or “I want them to be a lot more conservative like I am.”  And that actually isn’t our goal.  Our goal is, you know…you come in where you are, you listen to each other, you be in company and community with each other, and still be in your same political position or whatever.  But at least you may have a more enlightened point of view—whatever point of view that is—as a result of the experience, not that we’re necessarily trying to shift. 

And if that shift occurs, it’s the shift that happens within you, but you must be ready to make.  It certainly…it may happen in the course.  It could happen a year after someone takes the course; it could happen as a result of taking this course and doing other things on campus, like being involved in leadership activities or being involved in outreach activities—which a lot of our students do.  So we’re seeing us as part of a little kernel there that’s part of a larger thing that’s happening in the lives of students.

Fear and Frustration

JERLENA: You know, we should be having these kind of straightforward—not just place people together in workgroups and hopefully it’ll happen—but straightforward dialogues early on in our lives so, by the time they do come to a college campus, it’s fluid.  It is not, you know, something that is so difficult to do.  And I think that that is what I’m finding, regardless of how the class is made up—that each year, at least what I’m observing in this country, is that we’re not having the dialogue.  Because there is a lot of fear around it, there is a lot of frustration, particularly for students of color or people of color having to explain their lives in a way, and sometimes to a very hostile and dis-believable audience.  And so I think that there’s—this stuff is really hard. 

And part of me understands why it doesn’t happen, but I think that by the time we bring students together, that certainly is clear—that it hasn’t happened.  And so I think that that is—that is a realization, and sometimes we have to make sure we recognize that.

Barriers to Dialogue

DAVE: And also it’s the structure.  What’s so destructive about our housing patterns and our school patterns and our—the university as it currently is…to just borrow from Bill Clinton, “it’s the numbers, Stupid.”  You can’t have a natural dialogue occur like this.  At least it’s very difficult if you have a great majority of privileged people and a few underprivileged people.  You have to have something more representative of society.  It almost happens automatically, with a little bit of safety and a little bit of facilitation, if you have a majority of people of color, particularly Black and Latino and Native American, if you have fifty percent or more of working class.  And that’s not on campus.  I mean the experience of most privileged people is to only be with privileged people and to interact with people from lower socioeconomic groups in subservient positions, or one or two at a time.  They never get in a position where the dialogue would occur, so that’s the biggest barrier—is the numbers to begin with. 

What to Do – Changing the Question

JERLENA: “What do I do about it?” is a question that is often asked of students of color or the underrepresented student.  What do you want me to do about fixing this problem that you’re having?  And until we begin, until the question becomes, “God. What?  I need to think about what I’m going to do about it because this I going to impact my life.  This is gonna impact my life”—to me, that’s the question I want them…see, I said earlier that the answer to the question is not as important to me as the question itself. 

So until they start asking “ah, now what am I going to do?”  Not “what do you want me to do?” because that’s where the students of color and the less privileged students start getting like, “Uh, God.  Now I gotta educate people about my experiences, I gotta tell you what to do about it. And then it may not even be genuine when I do.”  So that part—and I think we’re probably at that part in the class because I think that’s where the frustration’s now coming in, the dynamics.  And hopefully what we see, if we’re gonna talk about how I would feel if this class was a successful semester or not, is by the end of the class, if those kinds of questions are being asked.  “What am I going to do?  I’ve thought about it.” 

What’s In It for Me?

JERLENA: I just don’t think that one can say, “Well, I got privilege and I got mine, so therefore…” And I think that certainly they can survive, but in the long run, what is that life like for you?  When the least among you is still struggling?  And you have not used your resources or used your privilege or your power to be able to help everyone in society?  Now, that may be like, “Fine—ain’t my problem.”  And you know what?  That’s part of the problem.  People have the luxury to just turn that argument away.  And that happens while we’re in the situation we’re in now, because it’s happened too often. 

But yet there are people and I believe in them.  I believe that there are people who have come to this class, and there are other people who haven’t taken this class, that recognize that and there’s something in their core that says, “That’s right, and I’m gonna be the one to do something about that.”  For the less privileged students—I think that’s what drives me in that way, even though I’m privileged in a lot of ways—is the hope.  There’s a hope that somebody…that they’ll get it.  And also there’s a sense of “I’m tired.”  My ancestors have been doing this work for a long time.  Can somebody else kind of help out here? 

So I think…I mean I’m probably saying it a little more crude than how it might be represented in the literature or something, but I just feel as though people have compelling reasons for staying engaged.  Because this is a difficult conversation, and at certain times, certain groups feel put upon, as they probably can share in feeling guilty—“why should I do this?”—but something about coming back every week because there’s something compelling in their soul that they know they’re connecting with. 

Peer Influence

How they even get into the class I think is what we were talking about, is because—because until…now that’s the hardest part…is us getting the makeup the way we want, and so I think peer influence is critical.  Because the students who are talking to them about coming into the class are ones who’ve gone through the whole process…and at the end said, “Woof!  That was tough, but my goodness—it was such an amazing thing for me to have to experience.  I don’t think I could get that anywhere else on campus.”  And so therefore that becomes a selling point for students.  I’m not sure how much they say.  “Okay, by fifth week, you gonna hate my guts!  I’ll see you later, I don’t know.”  You know? 

I don’t know if you have a thought about that.

Students Want a Diverse Experience

DAVE: Well, two-fold in terms of the privileged students.  One is I really believe that the majority, that even the great majority of privileged students here at Berkeley, came to Berkeley with the expectation that Berkeley is diverse.  And “I’m going to have a diverse experience” and will tell you they’re disappointed not to have that experience.  I don’t think they know what that means.  For most of them I think what that means is the old, “let’s have a beer together,” and “I’ve got two black friends,” and that kind of thing.  But it’s the dawning awareness of “there’s something just not right about my universe, and I wanted to break out of it.  And the university has structured a situation for me to be able to do that.”  On the deeper level—on the deepest level—I think Jerlena has it.  It’s when we go to meet our maker, or whatever we believe—we’re gonna look back on our lives and be faced with what our choices have been.  And if those choices have just been to get more for mine and for me, that’s what we’ll deal with.  That’s the shame we’ll deal with.  That’s what I believe in my soul.  But for most of us, that’s not enough.


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