Trying to bridge the gap

“What is race? What is gender? How do we make connections across cultures? Why is this work important?”

Joelle Ruby Ryan raised all these questions and more yesterday in an effort to create a dialogue between different human rights groups on campus.

She was one of four representatives of separate University organizations that met in the Union to address the issue of intercultural cooperation in an event called “Working Across Difference: Coalition-Building for Human Rights.”

Guest speakers included Ryan, a graduate student and president of University organization Transcendence; Errol Lam, a retired University faculty member and political activist; Shaunte Rouse, an undergraduate member of the University chapter of the NAACP; and Dustin Tahmahkera, the graduate student advisor for the Native American Unity Council.

Each speaker focused on their individual areas of study and experiences to stress the importance of unity between on-campus groups.

Ryan addressed the field of feminism, particularly what she felt was the domination of feminist organizations by middle-class white women. She singled out and criticized the Organization for Women’s Issues’ decision to only let women living as women participate in this year’s upcoming Take Back the Night march.

This means that men who identify as women and men in general will no longer be able to partipate in the march at the University, despite the fact that they were allowed to participate in the past.

“In order to make the platform of feminism truly relevant and timeless, we need to make feminism acceptable, inclusive, and truly democratic,” she said.

She went on to say that she found the “policy to be exclusive and insensitive,” and that many men, as well as others who will not be able to march alongside women in the event, want to support ending violence against women.

But Lam – who taught one of the first ethnic studies classes at the University in the 1970s – gave women credit for being the primary protesters of the University’s decision not to offer abortion coverage in its basic mandatory health care plan.

“Why are the women the only ones fighting against this plan?” he asked. “Where are the men?”

Through the lyrics of several musical artists, such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Lam also spoke of the need for students to be active in organizations that might not directly deal with their own background, race, or heritage.

“We just do our own program and go home,” he said. “What we’re doing is working inside the box, and we haven’t changed anything. You have to work outside the box to affect change.”

In addition to Lam’s reggae references, all four speakers cited a slew of pop culture figures, including the musical group Peter, Paul and Mary; feminists Audre Lorde and bell hooks; political pundit Anne Coulter; and Brazilian author Paulo Freire.

Rouse, a senior who has worked with Vision and the Latino Student Union in addition to the NAACP, agreed that intercultural cooperation would go a long way toward accomplishing many of the various organizations’ goals. Participation from white students, she said, would also help many to gain a new cultural perspective while confronting racism they might not have previously recognized.

Ryan also encouraged white students to attend these meetings.

“America likes its people how it likes its teeth: straight and white,” she said to a roomful of laughter. “Straight white people need to step out of their comfort zones to experience what it’s like to be a minority.”

Tahmahkera’s sense of humor also amused the audience, which nearly filled the room to capacity.

“I can’t tell you how many times someone watches ‘Dances with Wolves’ and thinks they know everything about Indian culture,” he said. “I’m just waiting for ‘Waltzes with Whites’ and ‘The Caucasian in the Cupboard’ to come out.”

But Tahmahkera, a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, treated the issue of intercultural unity with seriousness, especially the need to recognize differences between cultures while they work together.

In his speech, Lam echoed Tahmahkera’s sentiments, speaking passionately from behind a dark-blue podium, beseeching those present to unify on-campus human rights groups.

“For Christ’s sake, join an organization,” he said. “Try to affect change, but do not fight alone. You don’t have to fight in isolation, and you shouldn’t have to. This is the thinking we would like to introduce you to.”