In eleventh grade I had a history teacher who created an exercise in which she helped us to understand the true weight of discrimination without ever telling us what she was teaching us. We were learning about the civil rights movement and she organized the class into several groups. Each group was given a project to complete within the class period. The project was to build something before the other groups in the class and to live within the specified constraints of our groups. Various aspects of the project required us to seek permission from our teacher before moving onto the next step.
Each time a member of my group would approach her desk to ask her permission for something relating to the project she would either approve or deny it, which would in turn force us to rework our plan and start from scratch. Each group was handled differently and with each new rejection and the blatant favoritism of specific groups around us, tension began to run high between my teammates and I. With every passing minute our frustration grew and we fell into a place in which our teacher seemed to put wall after wall up to block our progress. Without a full understanding of why we were being treated differently or the project that we were working on, it seemed like everything was our fault because we couldn’t seem to get the response we desired and had worked for.
By the end of the exercise, one group had beaten all the others and completed the task with little to no opposition from our teacher. At this point, with emotions running high, she explained what was at the heart of the entire exercise and what it was that she was trying to teach us. She explained that we were being treated like the men and women who were discriminated against during the civil rights movement; the walls that stood in the way of their progress and their basic human rights. Not only had the exercise mirrored their quest to build and grow, but it also forced us to mirror the feelings of those who were being treated differently because of the color of their skin.
In a matter of seconds, the realization of the magnitude of this experience came flooding in and shattered any preconceived notions I had had about discrimination. I didn’t just understand it from the outside looking in anymore, but rather on a deeper level that I would never have had before that class. What made the experience even more shocking was her analysis of our responses to how we were treated. She had been observing us the entire time and our responses to the challenges that came our way gave her insight into the type of people we would have been during that era in history. I, like so many others, was a passive resistor. I complained about the unfair treatment, spread the venom of my frustration, and spoke without ever taking any form of substantial action to stop those who were oppressing me.
The realization – that I was the type of person who would speak about inequality without acting against it – ran pretty deep within me. It wounded my pride; pride that I didn’t even know I had at that age. To know that I was someone who would idly sit by while I was being treated differently was a big wake up call. I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to have a voice and tuck it away for fear of what it would mean. I didn’t want to be the type of person who doesn’t act when the world needs it.
Now as I stand openly as a gay man in a world that does not fully welcome it, I realize how valuable that fifty minutes of my life was. In one class period a woman used the smallest of ways to show me who I was and the type of person I would become if I were to remain that way. She taught me what it was like to feel small and helpless and sometimes even hopeless. She taught me something that to this day I will never forget: talking can only do so much; only those who take action can effect change.
Until next time…stay classy.
– C.M. Berry