Nearly 60 students attended last Monday’s first REAL Talk event at the Cross-Cultural Center to hear speakers recite personal experiences of overcoming social barriers of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. Held in the Dr. White Room, the objective of the event was to promote a positive campus climate and have more speakers join in on challenging common perceptions of cultural and racial identities.
The REAL Talk storytelling began with dimmed lights and a blue projector. The group, 10 students and faculty members, was individually spotlighted for the audience. Each story began with a serious tone and usually started off with a powerful statement that asserted their individuality. These “storytellers with a message,” shown in blue lighting at the front of the room, delivered personal stories about cultural stereotypes, to being the first generation family member pursuing higher education.
Kevin Huie, director of the Cross-Cultural Center, thought of the program back in January. To implement it, Huie was helped by Victor Torres, diversity education and administrative intern for the CCC.
Torres, the second-year main coordinator, said the program was created on the idea of allowing students to speak about personal issues.
“In essence, we are opening the door for a lot of people to shed their own experiences. My favorite poem is by Maya Angelou, when she says, ‘When you let your own light shine, you give the other people permission to have their own light shine.’ That is what I hope REAL Talk is, that we enlighten people to let their own light shine,” Torres said.
The event started with Sejal Patel, a second-year political science and public health policy student, who began with questions and responses to the common cultural stereotypes experienced as an Indian woman.
“I am not a typical blank. And I am not a dot in a billion either. I am a strong, South Asian woman. But what do you see when you first look at me? What are your first thoughts? Is it that I am a biology major going on to medical school? Do you think about the culture and the spices of my cultures, or that I have beautiful saris?” Patel asked.
“As an Indian woman, you only have a couple of options. Get a doctor’s degree, become a lawyer, become an engineer. But there is another option, a stereotypical option, arranged marriage and you see this in the media all of the time.”
Patel, who was involved in the Girl Scouts for 10 years and soccer for nearly that long, also ran cross country during high school. She emphasizes that there is much more to her than the stereotypical perception of an Indian women.
“When I graduate, I know when my grandparents come to see me, they are not going to adorn me with leis, or give me a bouquet of flowers. They are going to put a single red dot on my forehead, and that’s what they’ll give me when I graduate. But that single red dot does not mean that I am not going to be a dot in a million. I am who I am, not who you expect me to be,” Patel said.
Religiously, the single red dot, in Indian culture, symbolizes a third eye. The belief is that God cannot physically be seen, especially with two eyes. The single red dot is a third eye that sees God.
Torres, who had his own experience immersed in two cultures, grew up in a Mexican-American household, yet was seen to be “white” among his peers through his involvement in water polo and volleyball during high school.
“Although [I grew] up in a white dominant culture, it’s so easy to assimilate to be everybody else. But I had parents who were my rock, who reminded me of where I come from. While I was identified as Chicano, I never knew what that really meant. By me being Chicano and doing a lot of other things that wasn’t representative of Latinos, I feel like I am contributing to a positive label of Chicano,” Torres said.
Through it all, REAL Talk was a collaborative effort spread through a Facebook event and mainly word of mouth. Yet, Torres said that delegating which speakers and topics to choose from was the hardest decision.
Meetings were held every other week after the speakers were chosen. When May 12, the day REAL Talk was to present, got closer, the group of 10 students and faculty met every week on the weekends until the group believed they were prepared.
“We talked about logistics, about everyone’s outlines in the stories, the way you should start and the way it should end,” Torres said.
Until the next event, REAL Talk may be passed down to other student organizers. The idea is that students will continue the momentum and share their stories.
“This is not a one year event. My hope is that my speakers will get to talk more about their stories,” Torres said.
“That is one of the reasons why this program was created. Not a lot of people are comfortable sharing their own stories, and sometimes I feel like it is better to hear somebody else’s story.”