Last December a St. Thomas colleague and I attended a seminar in Washington, D.C. As we sat in a restaurant having dinner one evening, a woman from our seminar group walked by. She sat down at our table after we motioned for her to join us.
Several minutes later our waiter walked up and abruptly said to her, "You have to leave." I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. "I mean it. You have to leave now," he repeated. Catherine, a professor at a large state university, is African American. The waiter assumed she was a homeless person who sat down to ask us for food or money. He had no answer when Catherine asked him why he thought she was homeless. With a great deal of grace Catherine allowed my colleague and me to learn from her something of what it feels like to be African American.
"I know no color line, I will acknowledge none … .The time is not distant when Americans and Christians will wonder that there ever was a race prejudice." Are these the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.? My own optimistic hope? No, these are words spoken by Archbishop John Ireland in 1890 (The Northwestern Chronicle, Vol. XXIV, No. 21, April 11, 1890). Sadly, his dream has yet to be realized within the institution he founded, let alone within the United States as a whole. I have no doubt he would abhor prejudice of all kinds, for in this same speech Ireland stated that those who harbor racial prejudice are not faithful followers of Christ.
St. Thomas has a long-standing commitment to valuing diversity of all kinds. We need look no further than our mission statement to understand what we hope to accomplish through this commitment: "St. Thomas seeks to develop morally responsible individuals who combine career competency with cultural awareness and intellectual curiosity."
A morally responsible person supports diversity by treating every person with dignity and respect.
Career competence develops not only through mastery of the knowledge pertinent to a profession or discipline but by knowing how to work effectively with people.
Cultural awareness requires knowledge of other cultural values and behaviors and the acceptance that many of them, though different than one’s own, are equally valid.
Intellectual curiosity means to be open to ongoing learning, unlike prejudice, which often occurs when one makes a judgment without having accurate information.
A natural reaction when faced with these issues is a very real sense of helplessness. The problem of discrimination is so large and we are just small individuals. I would like to suggest two concrete actions.
Be willing to examine honestly the judgments you make about others. Instead, try to see the world from their perspective. It is very acceptable to say to another human being, "I do not understand your values, your attitudes, your behavior, etc. Would you explain that to me?" This is a critical step, but only the first step. Take the next step and listen. Listen to his or her whole answer before you make a judgment about it. Don’t be afraid to do this. Wouldn’t you love the opportunity of having someone listen to you while you explain why you believe what you believe and why you do what you do?
Move beyond such statements as, "I didn’t create racism/sexism/homophobia" or "It’s not my fault that children grow up in poverty" or "I can’t help it that I am white and historically white people have had more privilege than others." Why do I say move beyond this? Because you are right — you did not personally create any of these realities. However, holding on to an "It’s not my fault" attitude all too often becomes an excuse for not taking action.
Instead, accept that these "isms" do exist. To accept their existence does not mean accepting personal responsibility for their creation. It does mean accepting responsibility for their elimination. There is no need to feel guilty, but there is a need to act to dismantle what we have inherited — systems of power and privilege that give advantages to some while denying opportunities to others.
These are simple steps. That does not mean they are easy. Prejudicial attitudes and systems of discrimination are continuing challenges of contemporary life.
The St. Thomas mission statement also says, "Throughout, the university fosters in the student a tradition of service to the public welfare and an energetic, thoughtful approach to the challenges of contemporary life." If we foster service, energy and thoughtfulness, we will accomplish great things."
Nancy McGrath is assistant to Dr. Judith Dwyer, executive vice president of St. Thomas; and interim special assistant for diversity.