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Dialogue on Dialogue
Day of Dialogue opens discussion of race, but challenges comfort levels.
“It was far from perfect,” says Dean of Students Ann Quinley, “but it was the best thing we had found.”
She is referring to Pomona’s annual Day of Dialogue, an event that has, in recent years, earned both kudos and criticism. A work in progress, the event was recently redesigned to address some perceived flaws, but the overall goal remains the same—to promote open and constructive dialogue about race among Pomona students.
Run by Pomona’s Power Dynamics Awareness Committee (PDAC), a student group dedicated to promoting positive and informed attitudes about race, the Day of Dialogue was originally designed as a grueling, six-hour event in which first-year students were encouraged to talk frankly about racial issues. Students were first divided into two discussion groups—students who identified themselves as people of color in one group and those who identified themselves as white in the other—before being reorganized into mixed-race groups for further discussions. The idea was to relate personal, emotional experiences and to leave intellectualizing at the door. The reality, as the event organizers soon discovered, was a highly charged discussion that frequently became too intense for comfort.
“The questions they posed were different for each group,” Quinley explains. “They asked the white students how they had profited from racism, and they asked the students of color what impact racism had had on their lives. When the two groups got together, the students of color were upset and angry and the white students felt really guilty. This was simply an unconstructive dynamic. It didn’t lead to good dialogue.”
Senior Lindsay Hill recalls with mixed emotions her own experience at Day of Dialogue in her sophomore year. “The Day of Dialogue was so long, so emotional, so angry, and it was all of these extremes colliding with each other. I think it is important for emotion, and anger, and sadness to come out when you talk about these kinds of things, but not in a setting where you do not know anyone at all. Not in a setting where people feel uncomfortable, or torn, or have never talked about these things before. And after expressing all of this emotion, it was over. People were left with a bad taste in their mouths, and correlated that bad taste to the discussion of race, thinking that all discussions on race have to be that unpleasant.”
Last year, Dean Quinley met with students to seek ways to improve the event. The addition of a multiracial group to the original setup that year had the desired effect of encouraging more students to take part, but many were still troubled by the volatility of the exchanges.
This year, the program underwent a complete overhaul. One event became two—a Day of Dialogue for student leaders and a special “Diversity Event” for first-year students, held during New Student Orientation.
For the Day of Dialogue, organized by Dean Quinley’s office, the addition of videos and a panel of discussion leaders gave participants a common basis for discussion, a change that—in the opinion of Erica Lai 04, head mentor for the Asian American Mentor Program—transformed the event. “This year’s Day of Dialogue was more successful than in the past because we had the common experience of watching the video,” she says. “We had some vocabulary, something on which to base the discussion. In previous years, Day of Dialogue served more as a divisive tool and it didn’t necessarily bond people together. With the film we had a common base of knowledge and experience, so we were able to discuss that.”
The Diversity Event for first-year-students, organized by PDAC, consisted of a panel of five senior students—an African American woman, an Asian American man, a biracial woman, a white woman, and a Latin American man—who spoke about their own lives and personal experiences dealing with race, giving the first-year students a basis of knowledge from which they could draw during ensuing discussions.
“None of us made Pomona look like this perfect little haven where racial issues don’t exist,” explains Hill, who served as a panelist. “Issues on this campus aren’t in a bubble from issues in the rest of the world. These issues are really important to all of us, and this was our way of giving back, of wanting to influence the racial climate on campus, wanting to have a dialogue on campus that was effective—something that didn’t generate anger or standoffishness to the topic. People left feeling like there was something they could do, ways they could talk about race that were productive.”
According to Jaclyn Perlmutter, another panel member and PDAC leader, the redesign made the event more thought-provoking and less divisive. “It’s extremely difficult to talk about such sensitive issues. With the panel, we were able to take some of the pressure off the first-years and, in a sense, transfer it to ourselves. We were real people with real experiences—and Pomona students at that. I’m really happy to say that I think this has been the most successful first-year event about race at Pomona.”
—Antoinette Morales ’04