“People fail to get along because the fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
— DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
My campus is incredibly diverse: Our students come to us from 100 countries, and 50% are from outside the United States. Yet, having a diverse student body does not, in and of itself, guarantee that students (and staff and faculty) have an appreciative understanding of race, gender, religion, and class. Like many campuses, we often struggle with how to get students of different identities to have meaningful encounters; as Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses in her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race, self-segregation is a very real thing, on college campuses and beyond. While there are many reasons for this, much stems from a truth observed by Martin Luther King, Jr. decades ago — we don’t communicate with each other.
Qasim Rashid’s new book, Talk to Me: Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion, and Education seeks to change that.
How do we begin to build bridges of understanding, especially when so much of the world seems to be divided by intolerance, suspicion, and hate? Social science gives us some answers. Looking to my own campus, I regularly see evidence of what Putnam and Campbell call the “Pal Al effect” – namely, that getting to know, and like, someone of a different religious identity positively increases the view a person has of that religion. Importantly, the positive effects of an interfaith relationship extend to other religious identities as well. According to Putnam, “when you meet someone of a different religion, when someone from a different religion enters your five-closest-friends network, you become more tolerant toward all religions, not just that one new religion.” As Rashid demonstrates in Talk to Me, the “Pal Al” effect (though not referred to as such in the book), isn’t limited to religion; it’s true across other lines of difference, including race, gender, and more.
Too often as student affairs professionals, we forget about the simple but profound power of conversation. We sometimes get so caught up in developing new and innovative programs that we overlook the need to simply get students to talk to each other. As we struggle to constantly get more done with fewer resources, we can miss the opportunity to get to know our students and colleagues, to look beyond the surface and our expectations, and see them in their fullness.
To say “But I don’t see race” or “why do we have to bring religion into it?” is to do a severe disservice to those we serve and with whom we work. Talk to Me is a reminder that intersectionality matters. We cannot address race without taking religion and gender into account, and we cannot address religion without an understanding of race and gender. A perfect example of this is found in chapter 9. Contributing author Robert Salaam, a former Active Duty Marine who converted to Islam in the weeks following September 11, 2001, recounts how encounters with racism nearly drove him away from his new-found faith.
His is far from an isolated experience, and something we need to take seriously, both as professionals who must constantly be re-examining our own biases and preconceptions, and as professionals entrusted with the care and well-being of our students. When we create programs, whose voices and perspectives are included? Do we notice who — and who isn’t — represented in our student organizations, and ask why? If we are serious about cultivating a community of inclusion for all students, then we have to recognize the interplay of multiple identities, and actively work to support and uplift those identities.
As an example, look at the #BlackInMSA discussion on Twitter. It went viral in December 2015, with countless individuals talking about their experiences in student organizations as well as the community.
You can read more about the movement here and here. MuslimARC, a racial justice education organization by and for Muslims and the creator of the hashtag, subsequently published a list of 10 recommendations for Muslim student organizations that addresses the issues raised.
#BlackInMSA is powerful example of what can happen once we begin to talk to each other. As an interfaith and diversity educator, I’ve seen firsthand that this can be challenging. Talk to Me, a text which is at times inspiring, heartbreaking, and infuriating, isn’t shy about acknowledging that. It also, however, reminds us that the challenges are worth it. As we plan for the year ahead, let’s think about how we can facilitate and support such conversations on our campuses. If you’re not sure where to start, pick up a copy of Talk to Me.