Much of what passes for talk about race can more accurately be described as posturing about race - but does that have to be the case? Every year, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, students, faculty, and administrators try to find ways to go beyond the posturing. It's not easy.
"Universities," says Gee, pictured here at a racial-awareness workshop in January, "are places where discussions of painful topics should take place."
In January, filmmaker, diversity trainer, and consultant Lee Mun Wah broke the ice when he delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. lecture to the class of 2001. Lee has made a career out of getting people - temporarily, at least - beyond the stereotyping, misconceptions, and discomfort that the subject of race inevitably unleashes. His method was simple: He recounted his own journey through the minefields of racism - a story of entering rooms where he was the only person of color, of immigration officials who changed the pronunciation of his family name, and of the anger he experienced when his mother was murdered by an African-American man. Then he turned the tables on the audience.
"We never really look at each other," Lee said, so that's exactly what he asked the sea of first-year students to do. He invited each person in the audience to choose a partner - a stranger - of a different ethnicity. The pairs were then told to discuss openly, while looking directly at each other's faces, how racism has affected their lives. "What would it be like if every Monday morning we did this?" Lee offered. "What if we stopped for five minutes and asked ourselves, `How are we doing this week with race issues at Brown?' We need to be so outraged at the indignity and humility of racism that we have to do something to end it." The two-hour workshop earned Lee a thunderous standing ovation from the Salomon Center's overflow crowd, and was followed by smaller meetings within freshman units.
For the second year in a row, commemoration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was not limited to one day. In an effort to include University staff in the discussion, eighty people took time off from jobs around the University to be part of a workshop titled "Celebration of Community: Differences in Harmony." After four days of talking openly about race and racial stereotypes, participants listened to President Gee urge them at the closing luncheon to remember that "this is the beginning of the journey, not the end." Talking about the truth may be painful, he said, but "out of pain comes opportunity, and out of opportunity comes betterment."
Two weeks later, Gee sat in his office reflecting upon Lee's lecture and the staff workshop. "I'm pleased by the openness of discussion," he said. "Universities are places where discussions of painful topics should take place. It's part of the University's role as teacher. If we don't discuss these issues here and now, then where and when?"
But talk - no matter how frequent and open - does have its limits, Gee believes. "We need to talk less and do more. Universities are awfully good at rhetorical feats. But do we live by our own rhetoric? That is the question."