Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Montana Sig Eps Lead the Way In Diversity Project

Students see the ‘writing on the wall'
Andrew Dusek

For many students, words like “dyke,” “fag” and “kike” plastered in plain view alongside swastikas and other racial slurs may be shocking. But others say painting the words and literally tearing down symbols of prejudice help bring awareness to oppression.

This week, UM students and faculty have a chance to vent their frustrations and raise awareness for oppression by writing anything they want on a cinderblock wall located between the University Center and the Mansfield Library as part of the Writing on the Wall Project.

The event, which has been successful at other universities across the nation, runs from Tuesday through Thursday and paint is provided for people to write messages before the wall is torn down at 3:45 p.m. Thursday.

The project, which coincides with the Day of Dialogue, was proposed by the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity as a way of “being open and honest about offensive words and prejudices” and starting conversation about diversity.

Tory Gustafson, communications coordinator for the project, said that the wall is an “in-your-face project” that confronts racism in an interactive way. Gustafson said students can express how they’ve been oppressed by writing offensive words on the wall and expressing their beliefs, racist or not. “Either way it’s going to come down,” he said.

At first many students were confused by the eye-level wall covered in crudely painted profanity, but soon realized its purpose. Freshman Pari Kemmick said that she was initially confused and surprised by the messages. She said it was really cool once she understood the concept.

Kemmick’s friend, Libby Fletcher, said that she felt uncomfortable because she’s not even able to say some of the words. “We’re not exposed to stuff like this very often,” she said. “I don’t even know what some of these words mean.”

Sophomore Ashley Richards said that she supported the event, but would not participate. “I find it odd that at any point in time it would be OK to write racial slurs,” she said.

Not all students were shocked by the messages on the wall. Michael Becker, a senior majoring in drama and dance, said it’s a way to boldly bring awareness to what people say. “Sometimes what you say can be offensive, even if you don’t think it is,” he said, pointing to a comment that read “Stop being such a girl.”

“It’s great,” he said. “I love it.” Josh Peters-McBride, Program advisor for Student Involvement and Leadership Development, said that the wall is a “sweet idea.” “It’s just a visual representation of all the oppressed feelings, emotions and words everyone carries around daily,” he said. “It gives people an opportunity to see that oppression is very much apparent in our daily lives.

Derek Duncan, vice president of Communications for Sigma Phi Epsilon, was glad to hear the positive reaction from many students, but said that everyone is entitled to an opinion. It’s important to be open and honest about prejudices and have conversations about them, he said. “There are thoughts we have and things we shouldn’t say, but we need to acknowledge these things and talk about them to get rid of them,” he said.

Duncan said that the wall was inspired by an online student affairs project and added that schools like the University of Florida and Kansas State University have done similar projects.

Tina Brown, student coordinator for the Day of Dialogue, said the committee was excited when the idea for the wall was proposed. She added that she wasn’t concerned about the controversy because the Day of Dialogue is open to controversial issues. “We know they will come up,” she said. Brown urged all students to check out the wall and “write whatever their heart leads them to write.”

Adina Kaliyeva, a senior from Kazakhstan who sits on the Day of Dialogue Committee, said she was surprised to see the word “foreigner” written on the wall in Japanese because it could be considered a bad word to some people. She also said that the wall is a diversity issue and something personal and individual to each person.

Kaliyeva said that her connection with others comes from reaction to criticism. “People can react to all these issues,” she said. “It’s like, I don’t want to see this, but in the end, it’s created to be destroyed.”
andrew.dusek@umontana.edu