Quick disclaimer first: I'm a lot better, in 2011, at admitting some privilege things that I wasn't so great at as an 18-year-old from the suburbs who grew up listening to Rush Limbaugh in my dad's car.
But this episode was not a great start.
It was college orientation. I was in a room with 100+ freshman, we'd spent the day learning about all sorts of topics and campus resources, and now it was time for a presentation by the office of diversity.
A black man was standing in the front of the room, not speaking. A woman next to him said to us, "Just looking at this man, what are some things you'd guess about him?" Silence. "Okay, to start... where's he from?"
Someone said "Chicago"? What's he like to eat? Hamburgers? What's he like to do? Play basketball? 'Cause he's black and black people play basketball! The discussion leader was like, "There you go!" and wrote that one in huge letters on the white board. The answers started flowing a little easier, from the totally random to the obviously racist, we were encouraged to say whatever was in our minds. And the more racist we were, or the more "well he's black so..." items we could come up with, the more the discussion leaders just lit up and smiled and wrote them hugely on the board.
Then she told him to introduce himself. He said he was actually from Nigeria, and liked tennis, and could bake pies... or something. All our items on the board were wrong! We were supposed to be "wow so shocking!" but I knew that was going to happen, and was more just annoyed that we'd been encouraged, and then chastised, for making stuff up about him. Yes, when forced, we'd come up with racist stereotypes! And they weren't true about him! Which is why we had to be forced into saying them in the first place!
The girl told us that there are all kinds of different people and you never know about someone unless you talk to them. She told us she was part Native American, Irish, African-American and Ukrainian. She asked if anyone else would like to share who they were... and by "who they were" she meant ancestry. A few did. One guy also had four things to rattle off, she said "That's amazing, you have four too, I hardly ever meet other people who have four!"
After the program I asked if I could talk to her. I said I did not feel amazed by anyone with complicated ancestry, I did not feel like that was an "accomplishment" we should all celebrate. And I definitely didn't understand the point of the stereotypes exercise. Why encourage us to say things that you're going to turn around and tell us to never say, especially when, from the slow beginning of the exercise, we already know the stereotypes are wrong?
And this was her great reply: "We all have stereotypes. I could look at you and say 'Look at this girl wearing a Star Wars shirt, what is she 13? She must be so immature.' But that would be a snap judgement about you. And we miss important things about each other when we make stereotypes based on how other people look."
"YOU JUST DID IT!" I said.
"What?" she said.
"Exactly what you're saying not to do... you think I'm immature because of my shirt?"
She basically went on to say that I had a lot of growing to do, and would surely be learning a lot about different people now that I'm at college, and if I wanted to talk more I should make an appointment with the diversity office.
I didn't bother.
As I said, I'm a slightly better anti-racist now, if I were to sit in the room today I would have at least given the presenters credit for good intentions... maybe. Appreciating diversity really is crucial if you're going to work in the world, make products for diverse customers, and be open to diverse ideas. I've also learned that as a privileged majority, there will always be things I totally take for granted, and admitting this is the first step to correcting it.
But that's not the message I got from the program. So I still say, looking back, that it was awful. And the fact that she thinks no one over the age of 13 likes star wars revealed a LOT there.