Awareness | Posted by Julie Z on 12/14/2009

What I Learned at SDLC

When I told my friends I was going to SDLC, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, they all asked the question I’d both anticipated and dreaded. “How can you go to that?” they asked, “You’re white.”

I didn’t really know how to answer at that point. In a way, I had wondered the same thing when I found out that my school would be represented by 7 black students and me. I knew diversity was more than race, and I knew that I would inevitably learn a lot by going to this conference, but nevertheless I was a little uneasy.

In the airport, walking towards the flight for Denver, the confusion felt by my friends seemed to be mirrored in the faces of others we passed. I’d never really been stared at before – not in the way where you think, “they’re not really looking at me.” I’m not sure what’s that interesting about a group of 7 black teenagers and one white teenager, but people would blatantly follow us with their eyes as we walked passed. I’d never had that feeling before, of wanting to shout, “what are you staring at?” I’ve always thought of my privilege as something more socio-economic, more easily categorized. I never really thought about how just blending in – the privilege of feeling comfortable about just existing in a public space — was a privilege I’ve always had because of my race.

At the conference, we did various activities that sparked conversations about diversity, but one of the most moving exercises we did was in complete silence. All 1100 attendees sat in the same room. Some of the group leaders read off “identifiers” of our socio-economic background, and if we identified with what they said, we stood up.

They started with race. I stood up when they called Caucasian, something that seemed a no-brainer to me. But one girl in my “family group” (a smaller, break-off group from the conference) who I had already grown pretty close with was more torn about how she identified. She is half white and half Asian, and later told me that while she actually identifies more as white, the world seems to see her as Asian. I’d never even realized somebody could be confused about their race. It made me wonder what race is. Is it what you identify with, based on how your raised, what culture you identify with? Or is it how the world classifies you?

There were other questions I found so easy to answer that others struggled with. Gender, for one. I was amazed by the bravery of the 3 people who identified as transgender, and their ability to stand up in front of 1100 people and call themselves something that, in my experience, so many people fail to understand (usually they think transgender is synonymous with transvestite). I wondered if I were in a position where one of my identifiers wasn’t as common or understood…would I stand up?

The one I most struggled with, though, was religion. As I’ve talked about before, I’m half Jewish and increasingly agnostic (if not nothing at all). But there’s something about being Jewish; maybe it was just my family, but I was raised with an undying sense of loyalty to my tribe. And the things is, where I’ve grown up there’s a (relatively) big Jewish population. My school’s at least 30% Jewish, and I never thought about being a minority. But when I stood up in that room and realized I was one of maybe 30 to 40 kids in a room of 1100 that identify as Jewish, it sort of hit me. I’m white, but I am a minority. Maybe everybody is a minority in some way, we just try to cling to the things about us that make us the majority. Because being in the minority is a scary place to be.

That exercise not only made me realize stuff about myself – including that even though I’m a white girl of a comfortable economic status, it’s not so easy to classify myself – it also made me realize the kind of snap judgments we make based on stereotypes. I knew none of these people, yet I would find myself surprised at how some people identified. I’ve always considered myself an open-minded person, but I think the true definition of that lies within, in the thoughts nobody else is privy to. And that, it turns out, is not so easy a standard to live up to.

Another thing that struck me was the people I met at the conference. We were split up from our school groups and thrown into a group of people from all different backgrounds. But the ease with which we bonded in only a few days was amazing. We all just wanted to accept each other, plain and simple. We all ended up sharing stuff about our lives we’d never even verbalized before. One guy came out for the first time, to himself and us. It sounds corny, but you could see it in everybody’s eyes: we all want a world where we don’t have to hide who we are. We don’t want to live in a world of fear, a world where we fear dealing with people different than us, and where we fear ourselves.I felt a lot of things during my time at SDLC, most of which I can’t even verbalize, but primarily, why? Why do we do this to each other?

At my school, all of the black kids sit in their own section of the school, in a place called “the black benches.” White kids generally stay away from there. It’s not a feeling of direct hatred, but more we think that they don’t want anything to do with us, and probably, we don’t want anything to do with them. I’d always thought this was wrong, but never actually did anything about it. At this conference, I realized just how wrong this was, and that something needs to be done. At the end of the first day, we had to meet in affinity groups. I walked into a room full of white kids, a minority considering there were 180 white students out of 1100 total, and realized that out of the dozens of amazing kids I’d talked to that day, none were in the room. It struck me how this room looked like my high school, but I felt like an outsider in it.

It’s like they always tell you: we’re all the same. I’ve always heard this, always believed it, but never understood it until I went to SDLC. My life is not diverse. I talk to the same people every day, I know their stories, and then the new people I meet are generally the same. I think it just takes talking to people who are completely different than you, hearing their stories, hearing their ideas. That’s when you realize that despite those differences, which we’re so scared of, a common thread lies beneath. The fact that we’re all human.

SDLC helped me generate a lot of questions. Now, I’m looking for answers.

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  • Helen H. @ at 2:47 pm, December 14th, 2009

    Wow, Julie.

    It must’ve been an absolutely wonderful experience. Awesome :).

  • Steph @ at 3:48 pm, December 14th, 2009

    Mm – sounds awesome. I think that being in a crowd of people who want (and are trying) to change the world is probably one of the best things you can do for yourself and your drive to continue – it certainly was for me.

    I wonder how diverse the crowd of commenters here is, with regards to gender, race, gender expression, sexuality and all that jazz. I’d personally be really interested in seeing the results of something like that.

  • Claire @ at 4:12 pm, December 14th, 2009

    “At my school, all of the black kids sit in their own section of the school, in a place called “the black benches.” White kids generally stay away from there. It’s not a feeling of direct hatred, but more we think that they don’t want anything to do with us, and probably, we don’t want anything to do with them.”

    I can really relate to this! At my school, thereis a table in the library where all the Nigerian people sit. There’s maybe 12-15 of them in our school, and I have never seen a white or an Asian person sitting there.

    And I admit, as a white girl, I have felt intimidated walking past. Similarly, the top floor of our library is where the Asian kids go. Very rarely will you see a white or black person up there.

    Thanks for posting.

  • kimi @ at 4:41 pm, December 14th, 2009

    Interesting, I have never really thought about my ethnic background or those I talk to, but that maybe because at my highschool their are so many ethnic backgrounds and we all talk to eachother. I’m a quarter hispanic and though I don’t realy identify as a hispanic most people around me do.

  • Helen H. @ at 9:27 am, December 15th, 2009

    I think Steph is right. That would be pretty cool.

  • Steph @ at 2:27 pm, December 15th, 2009

    @Helen: Let’s start, then!
    as for me, I’m trans, female, a lesbian, butch, and non-theistic.

    That’s a decent chunk – what about you?

  • Amy CT @ at 5:47 pm, December 15th, 2009

    @Steph @Helen H

    I want in on this :)

    But… I kind of hate defining ‘me’. I’m one of those people wit so many nationalities making her up that her head hurts to try to work it out… I’ll get back to you on that one ;)

  • Steph @ at 10:41 am, December 16th, 2009

    @Amy – then don’t define your nationality. Try self-expressing yourself in terms of your gender, your sexuality, how you perform gender(butch/femme/other), what interests you – even what sort of music you really like. If you want in, just start something, and watch the wave build with you.

  • Amy CT @ at 5:37 pm, December 16th, 2009


    Aaaah, this is so hard to define :)

    Well, the name states that I’m female. That’s that one.

    I’m almost eighteen, and British, I guess (if I had to “umberella term” my nationality – I love in Britain, and was born here).

    I’m straight, and all of my guy friends accept me and respect me as a feminist… which is nice :)

    I was brought up by a Catholic and an athiest, and am therefore somewhat confused…

    And I guess I forced myself into the ‘girly girl’ category when I took that position as a fashion editor two years ago…

    Music? For a British kid, I listen to waaaaaay too much country. Y’all. Ha ha :)


    That was harder than I’d imagined!

  • Steph @ at 6:15 pm, December 16th, 2009

    ooh, fashion. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a ‘girly girl’, fashion has always intrigued me. I just don’t have a body type that can actually wear any of the pretty (and far overpriced) clothes.

  • Amy CT @ at 6:26 pm, December 16th, 2009

    Believe me, me either…

  • Jbote @ at 9:29 am, December 18th, 2009

    I am so impressed with your participation in SDLC! One by one we will make a difference at our school. Keep writing!

  • Garen @ at 8:55 am, January 6th, 2010

    Thanks so much for this entry; it was really interesting (your whole site is amazing, but that’s a whole other comment… :D)

    Anyway, I found it really interesting to note how you felt about being stared at when you were walking around in your group with your 7 black friends. I think what it was it that white never has to speak its name, and for the first time (I’m assuming; forgive me), you were identified solely by the colour of your skin. Seriously, go through a book and white characters are identified by ‘green eyes’ or ‘freckles’ or ‘blonde hair’ and while I guess that makes sense, most writers write ethnic minority characters with racial indentifiers, but little else. A lot of the time, you don’t know how tall a black character is, or how big their eyes are or just random little things like that.

    As a Nigerian 17 year old who describes herself as both Nigeran and British, I think people notice my colour a hell of a lot more than I do, and because I don’t speak ‘ghetto’ and am possibly the geekiest person in the world (99% of what I say is related to Harry Potter), I’ve always been thought of as a bit weird, not really ‘black’. I always joke that I didn’t know I was black until I got to secondary school, and it’s true. I always indentified as Nigerian; colour was just incidental. People were always English or Italian or Ghanaian or whatever to me; never just white or olive skinned or black. When you get down to it, two or three racial identifiers to separate 6 or 7 billion people is almost offensive.

    Race, for me, is in part ethnicity (by this I mean a set of characteristics shared by a set of people who all originated in the same place – like the facial features of the Somalian people – not shitty race biology that tries to work out which ‘race’ is prettiest) and part social construct – behaviour, customs, religion, dress, food (for me, this is an integral part; I mention jollof rice and immediately, anyone who comes from West Africa knows me as a Nigerian) and language.

    It’s also interesting to see that people insist on breaking you down into compartments. I am a 17 year old, bisexualish (I’d say I’m homo with hetero leanings), Nigerian, left-wing female. All of this makes me Garen; the priority of each thing changes according to the situation and to how I feel. The point is that it’s not fixed; it’s always changing. But tell people one thing, and they see you as only that.

    I’m sorry for the essay. I’m really glad you did the SDLC because it gave us this amazing blog entry. Keep on trucking! :D

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