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The Melting Pot

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American University’s Dialogue Development Group provokes thoughtful discussions about race.
American University’s Dialogue Development Group provokes thoughtful discussions about race. Illustration by Branden Vondrak.

Racially charged incidents in the United States often elicit calls for a “national conversation” on race. After the killing of Trayvon Martin or the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, politicians and pundits bemoaned the lack of substantive discourse on the color barriers that divide us.

Aside from cable T.V. shouting matches or angry online invective, do these discussions occur in any formal setting? American University has a Dialogue Development Group where civil, thoughtful racial discussions do take place.

Mohammed Abu-Nimer, who teaches in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program at the School of International Service, played an integral role in establishing the dialogue program at AU.

The Dialogue Development Group is now housed in the Center for Diversity & Inclusion (CDI), part of the Office of Campus Life. IPCR closely collaborates with CDI on the program. DDG includes discussions on race, gender, civil-military relations, and other topics.

“Especially with young people, I think they’re really willing to go there and talk about it,” said Tracey Livingston, program coordinator for CDI. “The dialogue is a release.”

Undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni, gathered in late November for a DDG discussion. These participants had previously been involved with DDG, and they reflected on those earlier conversations throughout the session.

To provide some anonymity for the participants, only first names will be used in this story. Abu-Nimer moderated the forum.

DDG’s Impact

Early on, Abu-Nimer asked the participants to explain how they were influenced by their past involvement with DDG.

“I was in a room and I was with people who were going to ask me questions. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to leave or walk away. Or just avoid the conversation as a whole. So it definitely helped me work through explaining my identity,” Shannon said.

“I’m half-white and I’m half-black…Before the dialogue, I didn’t spend as much time thinking about the other Americans,” said Heather. “There are people coming here all the time, and that updates what America’s story looks like. So it was interesting to hear more voices on the topic.”

Ian said he’s already more outraged by racial animus. As he reads about racism in the news, he now has a more visceral reaction.

“I found myself identifying with them on a more personal level than I had before. So it wasn’t just offending my pluralist sensibilities. I found it more personally offensive than that,” he said.

Exploring Identity

Participants weren’t afraid to examine their own racial and ethnic identities. It evoked a range of emotions, enabling people to confront how they’re perceived by the outside world.

“I grew up in South Texas, where everyone I knew was Mexican and everyone spoke Spanish and English,” said Claudia. “It was very eye opening when people would ask you, ‘What are you? Where are you from?’ And I would say Texas, and they would say ‘No, no, no, where are you really from?’ And I would say I was born in Mexico. But do I really have to say that to you? I kept thinking, ‘Why do you get to decide who I am? I get to decide that.’”

Several students discussed being a minority in the classroom or other settings. “I know that most of the time I am probably the only black person in the class. I know I don’t speak up a lot because I don’t feel like defending myself and my opinion,” said Rachel.

In addition, some white participants contemplated their own identity, even if it’s one of privilege. “People ask, ‘What are you?’ I can only surprise people by saying I’m from Iowa. You know, the label is already put on me as a white female,” said Courtney.

A component of this dialogue is empathizing with other people’s plight. Courtney said she’s learned more about “driving while black” and law enforcement clashes with minority populations. 

Professor Abu-Nimer then followed up with a question. “How do you explain now that you did not hear about this before?”

“I think it comes from where I grew up. It was a predominately white neighborhood. My undergraduate institution was white as well. So it’s kind of coming to this university where you have a more diverse makeup,” Courtney said.

Fighting Stereotypes

But exploring identity can lead to uglier stereotypes. The participants explained how they’ve had to fend off discrimination and prejudice over the years. Sometimes it’s overt, but on other occasions it’s more subtle.

Claudia explained how one of her peers thought her hometown of Brownsville was just a nickname, given its sizable Mexican-American population. “I said, ‘No, that’s actually the real name of it, we don’t call each other brown people,’” she recalled.

Growing up biracial, Heather said people didn’t always censor themselves around her. “Most people thought I was white. So I heard the most horrible things said about the people who would have been my family,” Heather explained. “And then you have to make a choice about ‘Do I reveal that I’m biracial and have a conversation? Or do I just go home and cry?’”

Towards a Post-Racial Nation

Some participants have experienced less outright racism. “I’ve never had problems. Even if someone was trying to be racial and disrespectful towards me, I don’t pick up on it,” said Ibrahim, who is black and originally from Somalia.

Yet Ibrahim discovered that American-born blacks have other racial sensitivities. “I do censor myself around African-Americans,” he said. “I asked a friend once about slavery. I said, ‘Hey, why is it such a big deal to you guys? Why are you guys always talking about it?’ And my friend was extremely offended. He was very angry—he told me so, too.”

One thing was clear from the dialogue. These students had vastly different backgrounds—racial, ethnic, and geographic. Yet despite where they come from, they’re all hoping to arrive at the same place: a nation where racism is a relic of the past.

Describing a previous discussion, Shannon expressed frustration that some students’ families discouraged interracial marriage.

“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I am a product of this.’ If my parents did not get married…I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t exist,” she said.

“I am from one of those families where my parents would frown, and be very, very upset, if I married outside of my own culture, out of my own Indian identity,” Eesha later said.

However, Eesha added that she disagrees with this belief system: “What if I do marry someone who’s not Indian? I don’t see that as a problem. I see that as a good thing. Maybe something new will come out of it.”