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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