During my graduate study at Andrews University, I took a class called Issues in Intercultural Communication. Out of 17 students, I ended up being one of two white people, yet this was an intensely intercultural group. Including the teacher, the cultures represented by the class were Brazilian, Norwegian, Guyanan, Jamaican, American (various regions), St. Eustatian, Bahamian, Serbian, Haitian, Salvadorian, Ghanan and Venezuelan.
One night we were handed strips of paper and instructed to line up outside, shoulder-to-shoulder. We then read aloud what was on the paper: “If your parents are still married to each other, take one step forward.” Some of us stepped forward. Most stayed put.
Next: “If you are right-handed: one step forward.” With each statement we stepped or stood, depending on our experience.
“If you feel unsafe walking alone at night: one step backward.”
“If you can find Band-Aids in a mainstream store designed to match your skin tone: one step forward.”
“If you studied the culture of your ancestors in school: one step forward.”
“If English is not your first language: one step back.”
Finally, we were told, “Without leaving your spot, take a look around.”
Silence, as we all turned in place. I swallowed hard. Everyone, save for one who was merely one step ahead of me, was behind me. Some were nearly back at the line where we'd begun.
“The closer you are to this sidewalk,” she gestured to the pavement mere inches from my toes, “the more privilege you have experienced in your life.”
I felt confused. Looking at my childhood, I wasn't privileged at all. I wore hand-me-downs. We had old cars and lived in an old neighborhood and the carpet in our house had holes. We even accepted a food box from the church once. Surely this wasn't “privilege.”
Then, considering the statements read aloud mere moments ago, I began to realize that despite the discomforts of my childhood, compared to other realities I certainly was . . . privileged.
The weight of this realization nearly crushed me, and I immediately felt ashamed of ever thinking I’d had a “hard” life. I lagged behind my classmates and, in the building’s vestibule, I felt the tears welling in my eyes.
“Hey,” said a gentle voice. “Are you okay?”
In my watery vision I saw a classmate — a tall, friendly pastor from L.A. — looking at me with concern. In a shaky voice, I told him how bad I felt. How stupid. How blind.
He asked quiet questions and listened, his hand resting gently on my shoulder. I answered him the best I could, still processing. It's only in retrospect that I realize how ironic and absurd it was that a black man comforted a white woman for finally becoming woke.
This was, as I see it, the true beginning of my education. It drastically changed the path I walk, and I’m determined to keep going.
At least, until the next awakening.
Before moving to California last year, Becky St. Clair was the Media Communications manager for Andrews University.
Photo credit: Provided by Becky St. Clair
Photo caption: Becky St. Clair