Summer Seminar: Race on College Campuses

Updated: Jul 26, 2020

By Ella Holsinger

With an abundance of political issues occurring at a time without school teachers to guide us through the maze of biased opinions the media serves, a group of teenagers turned to Real Talk seminars. Real Talk’s mission is especially relevant this summer, as it specializes in engaging teens in conversations about politics and current events in a respectful manner. In our current, tumultuous world, Real Talk provides an outlet for teenagers to learn impactful news and how to navigate difficult conversations truthfully and considerately.

I joined the third Real Talk summer seminar, run by founders Divya Ganesan and Eliza Goler. This meeting’s overarching purpose was to educate and think critically about race on college campuses. To kick off this meeting, Divya and Eliza introduced a new acronym outlining Real Talk’s mission and its norms of discussion. It encompassed methods of respectful speaking, such as advocating for yourself and embracing discomfort, which are imperative skills to implement in political discussions. Before fully immersing ourselves in talk about race on college campuses, we were asked to re-evaluate our views, specifically analyzing the limits on our perspective and the lens of privilege.

I joined Eliza’s breakout room discussing Yale’s controversial series of emails around Halloween costumes. After introductions and welcomes, we read the email Yale students of color groups sent to their student body outlining the strict Halloween Costume Policy to lessen the cultural appropriation seen around campus in previous years. Included were guiding questions to help students decide what constituted appropriation. Eliza asked us a guiding question of her own to kickstart our discussion: how we perceived this email. Some interpreted the email as thoughtful, some thought it was close to infringing on rights. I personally was impressed by this email; it was not excessively general, and it successfully drew a line between appropriation and appreciation. It was never condescending, but it still made a point to educate the majority white student body.

Erika Christakis, a dean of a residential college at Yale, decided to send out an opposing email to her college outlining her problems with Yale’s recent email. She perceived it as a way for the administration to seize petty authority over their students, citing the email as “an occasion for adults to exert their control.” Instead of making rules to guide away from derogatory costumes, she wanted the students to “talk to each other” if an outfit is offending. Thoughts on this email were quite a range, spanning from opinions of disgust to perceived ignorance from Erika. My two-cents? She missed the point of the administration’s email, which was to educate the student body and stand up for minorities, but she brought up interesting points about Halloween costumes and personal freedom.

Our breakout room was full of simultaneously fascinating and opposing ideas. Intention and free speech surfaced many times in our discussion. Some thought good intentions were enough to switch from appropriation to appreciation, but it is difficult to know one’s intentions. There is such a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, it was hard to find a generalized definition for both of the terms. An overarching theme I noticed was the stress on education of all kinds. Unawareness leads to biases and stereotypes, and educating yourself is an almost fool-proof way to avoid unawareness and ignorance.

I was left with a lot of thought-provoking questions. Is good intent enough to waiver any offenses made? Does age excuse cultural appropriation? I wish we had had more time to engage in discussion. Finally, we debriefed together and outlined the discussions the two breakout rooms engaged in. The other room debated about condoned vandalism on a “build the wall” poster put up by a Republican club at the University of Minnesota, and why one form of graffiti was acceptable while another was not.

Even though this seminar was only an hour long, it left me yearning to educate myself about topics I wouldn’t have stumbled on without Real Talk. The next seminar is on August 1st about gerrymandering with a guest speaker. If you want to learn more about politics respectfully and considerately, joining Real Talk is a no-brainer.

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