A Sea of One Thousand at UConn – Storrs, CT
I blink. There are one thousand people in the audience, but the stage lights blind me, and all I can make out is the roar of applause coming from a dark moving sea of people. This is our largest audience yet, and they are giving us a standing ovation. I send a smile of gratitude over to our host Angela Rola, Director of the Asian American Cultural Center at the University of Connecticut. Sharat and I take a deep breath and then the Q&A begins.
“My grandparents are from Poland,” one student begins. “They were immigrants and faced the same kind of discrimination when they came.”
“I remember how Palestinian students at my liberal arts college experienced hate crimes after 9/11,” shared another. “It happened everywhere.”
“There is an unspoken American lexicon that ‘American’ equals ‘white,’” another student added.
At this, I wanted to be sure that the problem wasn’t reduced to white verses people of color. I wanted to show how all of us – every single one of us – have experienced a moment where we haven’t been seen for how we see ourselves and where we failed to see others the way they wish to be seen. I told my own story.
In my senior year of college, after returning from the road with hundreds of stories after 9/11, I was writing my senior honors thesis about stereotype threat – the idea that stereotypes are embedded into our social landscape and we can’t help but react to them, even if we don’t support them. I wrote as if my job was to inform other people of their own stereotypes. “Surely, I am not guilty of such racism,” I thought.
That afternoon, I was walking home from school when a black kid walked toward me on the street. And I crossed the street. I pulled my bag closer and my stomach tightened. For the first time in my life, I noticed it! I asked myself, “Why is my body reacting this way before my mind has said a word?!” I thought back to all the episodes of COPS I watched in my childhood where the ‘bad guy’ was a young African-American male. I realized that those images were so powerful that my body couldn’t help but absorb them – just as the images of the turbaned bearded terrorist were so powerful than many of us couldn’t help but feel anxious when they saw Sikhs and Muslims on the street.
When I told this story, an African-American female student stood up in the very back of the theater and said, “I want to thank you for sharing your story. Just as you saw my brothers on the street as dangerous, I saw your brothers as enemies. We can change how we see one another’s brothers. I can begin to see your brothers as my own, just as you can see mine as your own – if we share these stories.”
Her response nearly made me cry. I wanted to reach out across the sea of people through the darkness of the theater and hug her.
After the Q&A, people swarmed us and the stories kept coming.
“I was born in Berlin, and I have been a student in four different countries,” a student named Robert tells me. “I was beaten up in Paris because I was seen as an immigrant. I know people who have never talked or touched a person who was different from them. Through traveling, I have come to understand how to cross this line of fear. And how important it is. Your film does that for people.”
“I am the ignorant one!” a Sikh college student Maninder tells me. “I’m Sikh, I knew this was happening, and yet I haven’t done anything yet.” After we left, Maninder vowed to begin the first-ever Sikh Student Association at UConn.
“I was twelve when 9/11 happened,” says Corey, a high school student at East Bolton High. I hadn’t realized there were high school students in the audience. “I grew up in an Anglo-Protestant town where there wasn’t much diversity. There are no Muslim kids or black kids at my school. I never had the opportunity to make sense of 9/11 or discuss it. When I saw the other side of the story in your film, it made me embrace as an American citizen the reality of the ignorance that still exists. That human civilization has been around for this long, and yet people can still hate you for having different skin color, a different god! It’s impetus to do something! Our generation can get any message out there. We have youtube. We can actually do something about it, not like twenty years ago, instead of just sitting back.”
His friend Dave adds, “This should be taught in every civic class. It’s part of our history and still going on now. We need to be talking.”
The next day, our dialogue team – Tommy Woon, Dean of Multicultural Life at Macalester, Jessica Jenkins and <s
trong>Tracy Wells – pioleted the workshop we had been designing for months called Crossing the Line. A group of students came together in a circle to experience powerful, courageous dialogue about how the stories of the film related to their own life and their relations with one another.