The Talking Cure
by Suzanne Walters Gray MFA ’04
To prepare for his favorite exercise in Intergroup Dialogue, Roberto Santiago ’09 taped sheets of paper to the walls of MacCracken Meeting Room. Written on each page in bright marker was a category, like gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status, and nationality.
A handful of students arrived, and Santiago and Natalie Gross, director of diversity and campus engagement, welcomed them. After explaining the exercise, Santiago read statements like “I think of myself primarily as …” and “When other people look at me, they notice this first.” The participants thought for a minute, then stood beneath the sign that best represented them.
It’s not an easy thing to do. “You have to make choices in that moment that you usually don’t have to make,” Santiago explains. Sometimes he is surprised at the categories people choose: “I think, ‘I wouldn’t have expected her to stand there,’ and then, ‘why do I think that? What am I responding to?’”
Intergroup Dialogue is designed to encourage this kind of awareness. Over the course of five meetings, the students examine their own beliefs about identity and privilege, try to understand others’ experiences, and find practical ways to confront ignorance and discrimination in everyday life.
Prejudice is learned, and it can be unlearned, asserts Gross, who initiated Intergroup Dialogue last spring and facilitated the fall meetings along with Santiago. The meetings are part of her efforts to create an atmosphere on campus where people are comfortable discussing race, bias, and privilege—which is vital to creating a community that is truly inclusive, she says.
Though the fall meetings were small, the conversations were intense. After completing and then discussing the exercise, Santiago and Gross would invite participants to talk about recent incidents that had bothered them. A white student felt uncomfortable when her literature teacher let Faulkner’s use of racial slurs pass without comment, even while the class was reading out loud. An African American student resented that when questions about hip-hop came up in class, everyone would turn to her for the answer.
With sympathy, humor, and good sense, Gross and the other participants would offer suggestions on how to handle each situation. The advice often drew from the group’s ground rules: Speak from your own experience. Be honest. Listen. It’s okay to make mistakes.
On several occasions, students took the advice, reporting on their experiences the following week. When that happened, “It was great,” says Gross. “When someone experiences racism, sexism, any kind of ‘-ism,’ speaking up gives that person their power back.
“It’s important for people to know that they don’t have to just let injustices pass by. Having that dialogue is important; it’s how people learn.”
Santiago was motivated to help run Intergroup Dialogue by a leadership conference he attended in Austria. On a field trip to Dachau, he was moved by a banner honoring “the forgotten victims”—the gays and lesbians who were murdered in the camp.
He says, “I try to remember that experience when we talk about ‘discrimination is real,’” —one of the working assumptions of the group. He thinks of it when someone tells him he’s making a big deal out of nothing. “Having your experience negated is … bad,” he says. Then he brightens. “But Intergroup Dialogue allows you to speak out against that.”