Acts of racism, acts of response

by Michele Coffill

It’s the white person who doesn’t want to sit next to a black person in class, or vice versa.

It’s the look of shock on the faces of parents when their college-age daughter brings home a boyfriend of another race to meet them.

It’s the bus driver who only checks the IDs of students of color while white students are waved to a seat.

These are everyday acts of racism. Since 2006, students have taken to the stage to act out the above situations, and more, for campus and community performances. The performance group, “Act on Racism,” grew from an assignment that Jennifer Stewart, associate professor of sociology, gives to her classes.

That particular academic year on campus was tense, Stewart said, as a number of incidents occurred. There was an increase in racial slurs written on white boards in living centers, acts of intolerance during the annual LGBT Coming Out Day, and a student group held an anti-affirmative action bake sale.

Frustrations were building and many on campus were looking for solutions. Students held protests and an anti-hate rally that top administrators, including then-President Mark A. Murray, attended. At the rally, Murray and others stressed that acts of bigotry and vandalism were not welcome on campus.

Members of Act on Racism are pictured.

It was around that time that Stewart offhandedly mentioned to two students that they should act out their “Act of Resistance” papers for other students on campus. The assignment calls for students to write an essay about how they responded to a racial incident. Stewart said she forgot her comment until weeks later when a phone call from a university administrator prompted her to organize a student-performance group. 

It was one of many initiatives the university took to address bias incidents. After 2006, Grand Valley established a protocol that encourages people to report any bias incident that occurs on campus. A campus task force, Team Against Bias, was created to review incidents and implement strategies to educate and engage the campus community.

Stewart’s AOR group is comprised of volunteers. They meet weekly to rehearse skits or write new ones. Kristi Jackson, a senior majoring in criminal justice, has been an AOR member for two years. She said she feels at home during AOR meetings, although admittedly it took some doing to get her there.

“People have told me, ‘You should come to these meetings,’ and I would think, ‘Why? It’s not like this is going to change the world,’” Jackson said.

It took one meeting for Jackson to change her mind. “I listened to what everyone had to say, I listened to Jen (Stewart), and I thought, ‘Yes, this could change the world,’” she said.

AOR is a form of peer-education theater. Students act out situations that exhibit profiling or stereotyping; some are humorous, others shocking. After the performances, members extend the dialogue to the audience, but Stewart said the students are careful not to present solutions.

“We’re not saying what someone should or shouldn’t do in a situation. Race is not that simple,” she said. “It’s more about getting people to talk about it. Race is the only category that you can’t talk about.”

All the skits performed are based on incidents that a current or past AOR member has witnessed or endured. Jamar Ragland, a senior majoring in criminal justice, acts in a skit based on an incident he witnessed in a living center.

“I overheard these two women having a conversation,” said Ragland, who is African American. “One kept going on and on about how ugly she thought people from Africa are. I approached her and said I was offended.

“She asked me why I was offended. I told her I identify as an African American, I have friends who are from Africa. Her friend came up to me later and apologized.”

Ragland said one of his favorite skits to perform involves a conversation among three men: one white, one black and one Hispanic. “The white guy changes his language as he talks to the others,” Ragland said. “To the black guy, he uses a form of ebonics, then he tries to speak Spanish to the Hispanic guy because he assumes he knows Spanish.”

Assumptions and stereotypes can be dangerous. Ragland hopes that’s the message audience members take away from an AOR performance. He said it’s natural for audience members to wonder what happened next after watching a skit. He hopes they go beyond wondering.

“I hope they realize that race is not a black and white problem. It’s a human problem. We all have to recognize that it’s a problem,” he said.

AOR has reached audiences beyond Grand Valley. Members have performed for area middle and high schools, and Stewart plans a community performance each spring. The group performed last April at the celebration for the expanded Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. In January on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they traveled to Ohio for a performance at Capital University.

Funding for the group comes from the Sociology Department and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship. An unintended consequence from performing in AOR is that students greatly improve their communication skills, and carry that through to their classes.

“What they present when responding to audience questions is a form of scholarship that’s measurable,” Stewart said.

She’s preparing a study that traces six years of AOR students to find the impact being a member has on retention and grades. “Being a member in AOR helps attach the students to their education,” Stewart said.

Ragland agreed that he’s a better communicator since being in AOR. But the benefits stretch beyond grades, he added. “It has allowed for a lot of self-reflection,” he said. “And it helps you not be a bystander.”

Jackson said she’s learned a a great deal from Stewart and other AOR members. She’s learned to speak up during family dinner conservations or during chats with friends when something she hears is bothersome.

She also said AOR has taught her how to debate and listen. “AOR makes me listen to people’s words and not judge them by their appearance,” Jackson said.

That is the cornerstone of AOR, Stewart said. “I hope that students in AOR gain a sense of empowerment when talking about race, and respond to others using evidence to make their argument,” she said.
 

Page last modified February 19, 2013