Unreasonable fear of blacks and minorities saddening, damaging
It is a rare privilege for pre-college students with an interest in science to be given a first-hand look at the process of its advancement. Last week, a group of about 20 middle school students from the Roxbury/Dorchester area participating in a community service program called SPES (Special Program in Education and Skills, Latin for "hope") came to MIT for tours of the Plasma Fusion Center and the Nuclear Reactor, followed by basketball games.
For this, we at SPES send our thanks to Paul R. Rivenberg and Kwan S. Kwok SM '90 and the graduate students working with them for guiding us through those two facilities, and our apologies to the baseball coach for inconveniences we caused to the team during their practice at Rockwell Cage.
The students were invited to MIT for one more event on Saturday: to see the MIT Concert Band perform their "Tour Finale" concert. Eight of them came, and took back-row seats in Kresge Auditorium.
The immediate response of several people seated near them was to move to the opposite corner of the auditorium, as far away from them as possible. To those that did so, I ask the same questions: Why are you worried? Furthermore, although they were seated quietly during the performance, someone approached them to let them know they were bothering her.
They didn't know how to respond. They asked me during the intermission, "Why were these people so uptight?" "What are they afraid of?" and then answered the rhetorical questions with, "It's because we're black."
Although I believe the kids' story based on a trust we have built over the last year, I do not know the particulars of the situation; I was performing on the stage and not sitting with them in the audience at the time. When I was with them, nobody bothered us, because they were with an escort.
They felt alone, and intimidated, in a strange world which they later said they wanted to have nothing to do with when we were deciding where to go.
In the Stratton Student Center, they were continually watched and followed out of the building by a Campus Police officer (even as I escorted them), and they felt like everyone who passed by was afraid of them.
What I am writing about is fear, an unreasonable fear based on inexperience. It works both ways -- the kids come away from this with a stereotype of a prejudiced college reinforced in their minds, having had little chance to experience the wonderful cultural diversity and open-mindedness that is characteristic of so much of this campus.
We hear the bad so much more often than the good that we can't help but be afraid when we see unfamiliar people, acting in unfamiliar ways.
I am reminded of two pre-frosh whom I escorted into a minority spring-weekend dinner, and whose thoughts and words revolved around "Oh my God." "Are we gonna get mugged?" "Let's get out of here while we still can," etc. The faces around them were of the "cream of the crop" -- the best of the best -- of last year's minority high school seniors.
But all of their impressive credentials were of no value to my two friends who, for the moment, saw only the color of their skin, and were afraid. "Little things" like this and like the experience of my friends from Dorchester, are the foundations of racism and prejudice on which the "big things" we hear about are so often built.
And so I echo my questions to these two MIT freshmen, and to everyone else who reads this and could envision themselves in a similar situation.
And I echo the words of Albert W. Morton '92 I read in The Tech last October in a challenge he sent to the MIT community: Get to know people around you who are from different backgrounds, particularly those with whom you think you would be least likely to do so ["Ignorance perpetuates `wall' separating `blacks,"' Oct. 19].
Grow used to working, socializing, talking and worshiping
(if you do so) with a variety of people while you are blessed with the chance to do so here at MIT.
This will help you check yourself when you find yourself assuming the worst about an individual or group. It's a challenge we all need to heed, myself included. Let's be guided by love, not fear, so we can chip away at the foundations of prejudice within us.
Adam Powell '92->