Saint Louis University students were challenged to acknowledge uncomfortable issues at a dialogue held by the Diversity Leadership Cabinet on April 1. The event, titled Breaking the Silence: Conversations on Race Relations, was held in celebration of Atlas week. It addressed the issue of current-day racism and its presence at Saint Louis University, as well as in the surrounding community. If attendance was any indication on the matter, students at the university have a lot to say about the issues of racism.
Because of the private nature of the event, participants of the dialogue were not identified individually but rather spoke as a member of the SLU community in general.
To spark conversation, the dialogue began with a BBC video on the “Delmar Divide”. The video was made in 2012 to expose the racial and economic segregation that is present in St. Louis – particularly at a “dividing line” otherwise known as Delmar Boulevard. It provided the audience with some background information and statistics on the harsh realities of modern-day racism. Students had a lot to say once the video was over, starting with their disbelief that one street can provide such a disparaging barrier. According to the video, the median household income in 2012 for those living north of Delmar Blvd was $18 thousand, compared to a significantly higher income of $50 thousand for those living south of the dividing line.
A few students brought up the dehumanizing effect that this divide has, saying that it reduces those who are living in those areas to a geographic location. They addressed the financial aspects of the situation and the fact that wealth is not being distributed properly – something that one of the participants stated is being purposefully done.
Participants brought up the issue of gentrification, or the process of rebuilding a deteriorating area that usually results in displacement of low-income families and small businesses. Many participants stressed the idea that revitalization of a community needs to include the people that are living there, but that oftentimes gentrification is systematically done so as to drive specific populations out.
“If the poverty is there, it’s systematically there,” the participant stated. Other participants challenged their peers to be careful with their language and watch what they say, stating that negative stereotypes, such as the idea of the “Shady Shell”, begin with language and the labels that are assigned to particular places.
“I hope others took away from it that they should be aware of how they make others who are different from themselves feel,” said sophomore Maria Turner after the dialogue. “I also hope [the dialogue] challenged them to really take a look at where their beliefs really come from.”
Other participants challenged people to question what it is they are really afraid of and whether or not this fear stems from personal experience or is an illusion perpetuated by media and the idea of the unknown.
“I fear what I don’t understand,” stated one participant. “Are we afraid, or are we uncomfortable?”
The dialogue continued for the entirety of the event, with many students wanting to continue the discussion past the allotted time. DLC was reportedly pleased with the turnout and fruitful dialogue that followed, and the organization hopes to host another event like this for next year’s Atlas Week. Students acknowledged their gratification in being able to have serious, respectful discussions amongst each other and at having a forum in which anyone can show up and voice their opinion.
“I feel re-energized in my efforts to encourage and create more social change on this campus and beyond it,” stated one of the DLC facilitators of the event Ale Vazquez.
The dialogue ended with students discussing what can be done to address racism issues. One participant challenged others to speak up while amongst one’s own friends, while another said “own the privilege that you live with…do more here.”