Really hearing people helps us empathize

“I think it goes without saying that we are all a lot more than the boxes we check on a census form.” 


While I was tabling for the Montana Race Project, I convinced four people to share their story, but overwhelmingly the people I talked to did not want to participate.  Most often, people told me they didn’t have anything to say.  I think I learned exactly how hard it is to get people to discuss race while tabling.  Prior to the Montana Race Project, I had relatively little experience discussing race with strangers.

The fact that we accumulated over 300 submissions for our project is amazing, and it is uplifting to know so many people care.  Yet it is hard not to reflect on the discrepancy between the student population of University of Montana, around 14,000, and the 300 or so submissions we received.  Even if most people were not interested in participating in our project, overall those I talked to thought it was very cool and they were glad we were doing it.  Others expressed concern about the essays that we had on our display.  They had a hard time with the essays that did not align with their ideas about race, and questioned our judgement by displaying them publicly, even after I explained our project.

I think that the question of how much editorial authority to take over the Montana Race Project was one of the toughest that we had in class.  At first I thought that the six word essays should stand as they are. I believed any outside context would take away from the integrity of so brief an essay, but as we received more I saw the context of certain essays as crucial to their interpretation.  I believe it was important that we omitted certain essays for being outside the scope of our project, or ultimately just unhealthy portrayals of race in Montana.

My six word story is, “Really hearing people helps us empathize.”  No matter how different we look, or how different our cultures are, we are all still human beings.  I think that oftentimes people listen to each other without hearing.  They let tough conversations go in one ear and out the other because these conversations are not always pleasant to have.  To truly hear what someone says is to validate them, to try understand where they come from, and identify with how they feel.  I think when we listen and hear what others, who may not seem to be like us at first, have to say, we find out they are really not so different from us in the first place.

I think it goes without saying that we are all a lot more than the boxes we check on a census form.  This is sometimes a difficult topic for me to feel comfortable talking about.  If there was a checklist of identities, I wouldn’t find myself checking a single minority box.  I’m white, male, heterosexual, raised Christian, and privileged.  I feel like everyone has heard more than enough about race from the perspective of my identities.  While working on the Montana Race Project there was one particular essay that caught my eye though, “Class of Caucasians discuss race problems.”  This is an easy assumption to make, especially in Montana, a place a lot of people assume to be mostly white.  Yet, it turns out to be untrue.  I guess that my question back to the author of this essay would be, “What if it was?”  Should we not discuss race and would it be better if we ignored it?  Places like Montana, where the population is predominately white, are perhaps the places where race is easiest to ignore.  Starting the discussion is just the beginning, but it is an important step.  I think that projects like the Montana Race Project, and classes like Diversity in the Media, are very important at predominately white institutions, for the silence that would occur otherwise does not advance anything to a better place.  The more we talk about race in America, the better we will all be able to understand each other.

-Rick Rowan, who participated in “The Montana Race Project: Everyone Has a Story” for DiverseU 2015. The project is led by faculty advisor, Kathy Weber-Bates who teaches Diversity in Media in the UM School of Journalism.


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