In a past life (i.e., one year ago), I was an undergraduate and an RA at WashU. It was kind of a big deal, thanks. But with that Big Deal came Big Responsibility—namely, diversity training.
Unless you’re a complete asshole, diversity training usually entails preaching to the choir. You just sit around and discuss all the “isms” you already know to avoid—racism, sexism, heterosexism, republicanism, et cetera. However, toward the end of my run as an RA, I was introduced to the latest technology in diversity gaming—“What Stands Between Us: Diversity Conversation Flash Cards” by Stir Fry Productions ($50.00). These cards operate under the assumption that we, as Americans, are too afraid to tell each other what we really think and so, with the help of “four hundred questions that people of color and EuroAmericans have always wanted to ask each other,” we might finally begin to tackle the issue of race. In short, these weren’t ordinary flash cards; these cards would change the way I thought. They would make me a Better Man.
I don’t think a typical article would suffice in conveying the power of these cards. So instead, I sought out a “EuroAmerican” here at Princeton to read through some of the cards with me. EuroAmericans being in short supply, I settled for a WASP named Kip. Kip and I agreed to be completely honest with each other—very Dean-and-Carlo of On the Road fame. Very American. Being more on the caramel-brown side of the skin-tone spectrum, I took the “colored” side of the deck. What follows is an actual dramatization of our interaction (what the cards say is in italics; the phrases have not been altered):
Before we began, I offered Kip some tea because it’s the polite thing to do. All I had was TAZO Awake®, but the wrapper gave us a good starting point for our talk. I read it to Kip. “Imagine yourself on a lush tea estate in India around the turn of the century. Your breakfast tea would have tasted a good deal like Awake.” I asked Kip if he found that slogan a little ridiculous; you know, given history and all. Kip smiled and said, “Colonial India, huh? Great times. My great-grandfather ran a tea plantation, I think.” I replied, “No kidding? My great-grandfather worked on one.” Kip said, “Hey! Maybe they knew each other! Small world.” I suggested that we start the game.
I let Kip go first and he read from the card, “Can I touch your hair?”
Kip: It’s oilier than mine.
Me: I haven’t washed it today.
Kip: Is that a cultural thing? That’s really fascinating to me.
Me: Okay, my turn, Kip. Do all white people have lice?
At this point, I think we were finally starting to break down barriers. Kip said, “I wouldn’t say all…” but then he took a deep breath and remembered our pact of absolute honesty and continued, “Yes. My god, yes. I’ve wanted to tell someone that for so long.” He wept and looked as though he could use a hug. But I wasn’t about to go anywhere near his lice-infested scalp.
Eventually, we persevered. It was Kip’s turn and he obliged with, “If a white person has a higher rank than you, do you really think of them in a ‘master’ role?” I thought back to all my previous jobs, and I realized that every time my pale-skinned bosses told me to “stop taking two hour lunch breaks” or to “stop stealing pastries from the display case,” they were trying to keep me from getting my slice of the pie. Literally (rimshot, please). I asked Kip if, when working under such conditions, there was really any other way to think of my bosses. He nervously conceded this point, and I could see that the game was starting to get to him. So I kept going.
Me: “Do you ever acknowledge that North America is not your country, that it is still colonized and that you have no intention of giving it back?”
Kip: “What about Manifest Destiny? Are you telling me that god didn’t tell our forefathers to expand? You can’t be serious. Can you?”
Me: “Kip, are you calling the game a liar?”
Kip could only respond by drawing his next card and asking, “Do you think of white folks as barbarians?” Hello? Have you seen Braveheart, Kip? I could only nod yes, afraid that my words would shatter him. We continued on in this way. Kip read such gems as, “Why can’t you just be American, rather than setting yourself apart?” and “Can you forgive me for hating you?” and “Is it amusing to watch white men dancing?” and “Are black women simply women who happen to be black?” I’m not even sure what that last one means.
For my turns, I read, “Do you really believe in all the lies on how this country is built?” and “Would you give up your privilege for me?” and “Tell us one racist thing you have done.” That one’s my personal favorite. It’s not even a question—just a bold slap to the face.
Clearly, this wasn’t a Diversity Game. This was a Diversity Slaughter. With every card drawn, I was breaking his spirit and elevating mine a little bit more. In Kip’s defense, there wasn’t much he could do. The deck was stacked against him. It was vengeance thousands of years in the making, and all for just $50. I finally understood the new direction diversity training is taking. It is not enough to simply make the majority aware of various minorities. It is not enough to teach people to look past differences. Diversity training must make the majority feel guilty for being the majority. It must humiliate the majority.
I used to accept responsibility for things. When I was told I’d never make it as a baseball player, I didn’t think it was because I’m brown, but because I hit .162. in tee-ball. When I got rejected from various colleges, I didn’t think that it was because I was caramel. I thought it was because it took a special kind of idiot to hit .162 in tee-ball. But now I’m not so sure. Thanks to these diversity flash cards, I’ve found the perfect scapegoat for all my shortcomings. It is because I’m brown. My god, why didn’t I see this before?
By the end of the game, Kip was pretty worked up. At last, he drew a card that seemed both a burden and a blessing. He knew it would be difficult to read, but he also knew that reading it would solve all the world’s problems. It would liberate him from his White Guilt and me from my crippling sense of racial inferiority. At last Kip took the plunge and read, “On behalf of the entire white race, I would like to apologize for everything we have ever done wrong.” There it was. Now that he’s said it, the healing could begin. Racial oppression and tension could completely disappear now thanks to those few flippant words breezily printed on a 2×4 piece of paper. We’ve all been skirting the issue, burying it under “solutions” like affirmative action and social justice initiatives. But these are just quick fixes. Kip here has been brave enough to do the hard work in dissolving racial inequality.
So, come on my fellow minorities. It was a nice scapegoat while it lasted, but now it’s over and done with. He has apologized. He’s sorry. On behalf of everyone. For everything. So quit your bitchin’ and accept the apology.
And to think, this whole time all we needed was something as simple and fun as flashcards!