I had an AWESOME meeting this afternoon with one of the grad students I advise. She is a Hall Director, overseeing a building of about 500 students. This past weekend, one of her Resident Assistants came to see her because she had read something that was written on a dry erase board on someone's door. It was some kind of joke that ended with something along the lines of "Who would you rather have be responsible for building your house? A woman, a f*g, or an African American." I know… I don't get why that's a joke either…
The RA is an African American woman – offended on two fronts. The "joke" was inappropriate at the very least because it was posted in the hallway on their door in plain view for anyone walking in the hall. My advisee came in frustrated because she could not handle it the way she wanted to and had been trained to do where she went to undergrad – wipe it off. At our school, we try to uphold free speech issues while making them as educational as possible. Extreme situations that cross into hate speech are handled differently, of course. But this "joke" no matter how inappropriate is not considered hate speech. Stupid…yes. Short sighted…yes. Insensitive…yes. And sure as heck not funny…
So she was handling the situation well, but clearly agitated and frustrated and needing to vent and blow off steam. I listened actively and reflected back and all the great things we are taught to do when emotions get high. She was able to see both perspectives and even laugh a little.
Then she told me about a program she had been involved with at her undergrad called the "Bias Wall" – coolest thing I have heard about in a long time. Basically, a group (the RA's at her old school) spends a period of time documenting instances of bias they see – jokes like the one above, graffitti that says "I hate ____" or "___ Sucks". Anything that is negatively directed towards a particular group of people. They take photos or collect the actual writing whenever possible, then create a movable display of all the images of bias language documented in their environment. The display is then taken to various locations where people just look at it without talking and are then taken to a different location where they can process their feelings.
I think most of us feel pretty comfortable in our surroundings and aren't aware of a lot of bad energy directed towards other people. Sure, turn on the tv, radio, or log onto the internet and you're bombarded from all sides, but in our day to day lives we get comfortable and feel pretty confident. Possibly so much so that when something unsettling does happen we are caught off guard for a moment.
The power of this program is that these are instances of bias that are from THEIR OWN classmates, co-workers, friends, family, etc… It is their own environment, their own people, not the ever-present but deniable "other". They can recognize the walls, furniture, landscaping. They might even see themselves reflected in someone else's bias. It seems to actually get in there and hit home. And it gets them talking.
My advisee wants to bring this program to our campus and I could not be more excited. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Clothesline Project, but people who have been victims of sexual assault decorate t-shirts that depict their pain. Some are letters to their attacker, some are missiles of defiance and courage and "I shall overcome", all are heart-wrenching. The shirts are then hung in a room for people to walk through and read. I go every year. I've been reading some of the same shirts for 10 years now. And I still cry every single time. It's that powerful. I think the Bias Wall has the potential to be that powerful too.
And I am so excited to see her get it going!