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COLUMN

Promoting Racial, Ethnic, And Cultural Education

Terrence Strader

Our society today suffers from a lack of education in the areas of race, ethnicity, and culture, the effects of which currently plague communities across the world. Using education as a tool to inform others in our society about the many diverse people in this world would help to eliminate the discrimination and prejudice that cripples our society on a daily basis. I propose that MIT students be the first to step up to the challenge.

During my first year here, I was amazed at the diversity of the campus. I saw people from many different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, many of which I had never seen or heard of before. I did not know the best way to approach people of different backgrounds. I did not know whether they practiced some of the cultural rituals I did. Because I did not want to offend anyone with what I did or give a bad first impression of myself, I decided to stay around people I had been around all my life. I soon found out that I was not the only one who responded to their fears in this way. These actions lead to the self-segregation we see practiced all over MIT.

Though I began my diversity education freshman year, it was in my sophomore year that I enrolled in 11.023, Bridging Racial and Cultural Differences, taught by Dr. Clarence Williams. It taught me about my own background, while also teaching me about many others. I obtained a more in-depth understanding of the people who lived in my dorm, sat next to me in class, and who live in the many other countries of the world. The education I received in 11.023 caused me to strive to learn more; for the first time, I wanted to explore what I was learning on a variety of different levels. I am still seeking and will continue to explore different events and issues in the area of diversity.

With this said, I have a vision for MIT, a vision that involves expanding diversity awareness. We have a very diverse campus; we have people from all realms of the world, of all different backgrounds, and nationalities. However, we seem to never take advantage of this great asset. Students continue to hide in their corners, concentrated with students of their own race, ethnicity, and culture. In their corners some students are making assumptions or developing negative thoughts about people of different backgrounds, and therefore never approaching them. As Dr. Beverly Ann Tatum, author of Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, says, “Sometimes the assumptions we make about others come not from what we have been told or what we have seen on television or in books, but rather from what we have not been told.” It is time to educate the MIT community.

I have heard President Vest continually make statements supporting the idea of increasing our racial awareness. He has said, “We have much to do if we are to take true advantage of the rich variety of cultures and experiences we bring to this place.” For years MIT has tried to use different approaches to promote awareness and understanding on the issues of diversity and race by offering a number of racial programs, extracurricular activities, workshops and discussions. Many students and faculty members have overlooked these opportunities. Now it is time to take a bigger step. As Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Steven R. Lerman said, “As an institution, we will need to pay attention and be willing to increase our efforts over the coming decade if we are really going to succeed.” It is time to increase our efforts.

This expansion could come from a required class. It could be a HASS-CI class, satisfying Phase I of the Writing Requirement. It would include alumni participation, improvements in advising and mentoring, improvements in the first year educational experience and transition into other years thereafter, and allowance for the flexibility for new learning experiences on and off campus.

MIT Alumni are motivators and mentors for many students. I propose that alumni should play this role on a more active basis, speaking to these classes. Dr. Williams’s book, Technology and the Dream, would be a great place to start searching for alumni dedicated to addressing diversity issues. They could come and reflect on their experiences here at MIT, and inform the students how much has changed, or even stayed the same, since they were here. Actual testaments would be great exposure to what is going on or has gone on in our society, instead of simply reading articles or watching videos.

A list of alumni or current staff who wish to participate could be given out to students at the beginning of the term; students could then utilize them as resources for projects or papers. In this way, students and faculty could directly learn from each other. They would build a bridge of understanding.

A diversity class would not only improve the first year educational experience, but also the lifetime educational experience. Because most first year students come from high schools with homogeneous racial settings, they would be greatly benefited by heterogeneity. Taking this class will allow students to learn more about everyone around them and feel moreso a part of the crowd. They could begin taking full advantage of the environment MIT provides and develop into better leaders.

Our entire campus needs to be racially, ethnically, and culturally educated. We need to take advantage of the wonderful gift of diversity we have taken for granted for far too long.

Terrence Strader ’04 is a member of the Committee on Campus Race Relations and the founder of Advocates for Awareness.