April 26, 2004

Beyond stereotypes        

This open letter to President Jim Wagner, University administrators, faculty, staff, students and other members of the Emory community was conceived and written by the students of the spring PSYC 475S seminar, “Stereotypes, Prejudice and Discrimination,” taught by psychology Professor Eugene Emory.

The purpose of this open letter is to convey our thoughts and feelings as Emory undergraduates deeply concerned with the current racial climate on this campus, and the value of courses such as the one we are completing in the psychology department this semester. We will describe our experiences in the classroom, their impact on our thinking and the concrete actions we feel President Jim Wagner, the central administration and faculty can take to address racial tensions on this campus.

Our Psychology 475S junior/senior seminar on stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination afforded a learning opportunity virtually unmatched in our educational experience at Emory. The course was educational at many levels, including first-hand experience of how people’s perceptions of others can be distorted by preconceived notions based on group membership (i.e., stereotyping).

As a class we were privileged and enlightened by the opportunity to hear directly from Drs. Tracy Rone and Carol Worthman during two separate class meetings. By now most of the Emory community is aware that Dr. Worthman, a white professor of anthropology, uttered a racially insensitive phrase during a department meeting last fall. Dr. Rone, an assistant professor in anthropology who is black, subsequently filed a complaint with Emory’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. Dr. George Armelagos, chair of anthropology, also visited our class.

We were struck by the contrasting styles of the three professors. Dr. Rone was composed, articulate and cordial. Dr. Worthman, equally articulate and cordial, was clearly emotional and remorseful about her comment. Both were perceived as open and honest, engendering genuine respect from all of us and dispelling negative, stereotyped images that had been developed through informal channels and media reports.

Dr. Armelagos appeared less comfortable with the class, owing perhaps to his role as chair and spokesperson for the anthropology department.

The strong public reaction to this incident made many who were unaware realize that deep racial tensions exist on this campus. We think a large part of this racial tension is related to the apparent paradox of Emory’s rankings in the 2003 Princeton Review: No. 5 in diversity, but No. 1 in segregation.

Our class project was to develop a diversity questionnaire that could be used for the Emory community and completed anonymously online. We expect to complete a pilot version by the end of this semester and hope the administration will consider it for use. We hope that, in some form, our questionnaire can be used as a periodic survey of the racial climate here at Emory.

Our class is a racially and culturally diverse group of students, and our working groups have been deliberately designed to foster cross-ethnic and cross-racial interactions, although the assignments were not about group process or how we got along. Several students noted that the experience helped them become familiar with students with whom they might never have worked before. They also noted that the requirement to meet and work outside the classroom created a rare sense of common purpose and community. This aspect of our work was rewarding in ways no one, except perhaps the professor, could have imagined.

This class has helped us to learn that virtually all groups are subjected to stereotypes and prejudice. Some of us were confronted with private feelings about our own implicit prejudice, and this class was the first place where many of us felt we could let our “PC” guard completely down and get to the real issues. We asked questions and discussed stereotypes about blacks, Asians, Jews and Italians, to name a few.

Although there were several readings followed by structured discussions, the open-dialogue format of the class was necessary and helpful in understanding how peers of other races and ethnic groups deal with similar forms of discrimination. Hearing Drs. Rone and Worthman speak dispelled our own stereotypes and images. Dr. Rone, depicted frequently in the media as an angry black woman and overly sensitive, was seen as sincere and measured in her responses. Dr. Worthman was no longer viewed as a hostile or “racist white professor,” an image implied by media reports and reactions of some faculty. Seeing and hearing both of them taught us never to judge too soon.

We have been taught that we can use sensitive language (i.e., pejorative words like “nigger,” “jap,” “wetback” and “dago”) in the proper context in order to explore the social history that makes such words offensive. Such words were spoken in our classroom without accusations of racism because they were used for educational purposes only. It seems that open conversations are the best tool for creating real interracial understanding.

Due to our unique learning experience and our insight into the racial tensions on campus, we hope to see some changes at Emory that address these issues. We believe every department in Emory College should offer at least one seminar dealing with stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. We think students learn more when they interact during class rather than simply listening to their professors. Indeed, professors also seem to learn from their students’ insights.

We think people should honestly examine their own implicit and explicit stereotypes, prejudices and acts of discrimination. Everyone can take personal accountability for his or her actions and other small, individual steps; combined with administrative and curricular changes, large steps toward positive change can be made.

Although some people may speculate about the practical application of our proposal, we concluded that it is possible to have classes with content related to theories of race and culture in all subjects, including the natural sciences. We were given examples from biology of theories about race and inferiority. We think that eventually every Emory student should be required to enroll in such a beneficial course. The freshman seminar series seems a logical place to implement this idea.

Hopefully incidents like the one in the anthropology department can be prevented. No one wants to see another controversial issue arise out of the racial tensions here at Emory, but should it happen, we hope to avoid a situation where incorrect information is conveyed through outside sources. Therefore, let us foster a community where people can listen, be heard and learn through mutual understanding.

We think that administrators and faculty need to be more proactive because as a community we are invested in the quality and image of the University. We have become deeply engaged in the discussion and exploration of diversity here and are taking steps to assert ourselves as members of this community to ensure that this University does not take its diversity for granted.

It is important that we foster ideas of diversity and not simply boast about our diversity numbers in published reports. Whenever Emory is mentioned in conversations outside our community, eyebrows are raised in respect. We are perceived as a prestigious school, and we want to be known for our social integrity, not our racial segregation. Therefore, we do not want our image tarnished by controversial issues such as racial insensitivity.

We believe the bottom line is that something needs to change at Emory. We do not want eyes to roll and heads to turn because our reputation could become one of a school that does not know how to treat people fairly. We suggest, above all, that constructive changes in the curriculum and opportunities for diversity of interaction be made a top priority. We are proud of this University, which is why we urge every member of our community to contribute to making it a better place.