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Dialogue on race draws crowd
April 13, 1998

Faculty, students and staff from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds gathered at the African American Cultural Center April 6 for an open discussion, "Bridging the Racial Divide." The discussion was part of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, which asked colleges and universities across the U.S. to engage in dialogue on the topic "One America in the 21st century."

"We cannot miss the opportunity for the University of Connecticut to engage in this dialogue about race," said Willena Price, director of the center. "Be open and honest. Feel free to say what you need to say," she told the crowd of about 120 people seated at round tables.

President Philip Austin said the University has made "dramatic progress in terms of new faculty last year and with respect to the undergraduate student body, our minority enrollments have more than doubled in the last decade."

He said that he and Chancellor Mark Emmert are committed to "Increasing the presence of those who come from different backgrounds" at the University. "It is our objective that the place become more congenial to those from different backgrounds," he said.

Emmert said many people find it hard to talk about race. "One of the difficulties we seem to have in America broadly and even in academic environments - where we're supposed to be able to deal with all issues and all the topics of the day - is talking about race, which is such a dominant issue in our culture for all kinds of reasons."

Participants were encouraged to talk about their racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and their early memories of contact with people who were different from themselves. They talked about racial stereotypes and growing up in isolated, segregated neighborhoods.

Daryl Harris, an assistant professor of political science, said there is a continuing tradition of projecting Africans in a negative light, and that it "colors the interaction that we have with one another." He talked about the fear that "an average black person" might experience when hearing a police siren or seeing the lights of a police car. "There is a fear generated within that person - what did I do wrong, and I hope if I get stopped nothing terrible happens to me."

Undergraduate student Rocky Young, whose mother is white and father is black, said there is social pressure on individuals to define themselves as black or white. He described how he felt as a youngster at a middle school dance where white children stood on one side of the room and blacks stood on the other. He says he didn't know where to go. "That's the problem in today's soci-ety," he said. "We're defined as black and white, when in reality we're together."

Glynis Dilaire, also an undergraduate student, talked about the low expectations of her at her elementary school, where she was the only black child. When she did well on math tests, she was asked to take them again. "I think it was partly because my teacher thought I was cheating," she said.

Other participants offered suggestions to overcome racial segregation.

"Define yourself as a citizen of this country and begin with that," said Bob Drake, a teacher from New Britain.

Naghmeh Sobhani, a sixth-semester student in international development and political science, said she is grateful to her parents, who "Instilled in me the concept of the oneness of humanity." Sobhani, who was born and raised in North Africa and whose parents are Iranian, said "I've taken up the challenge to embrace the idea that race unity is an instrument for bringing about societal development. It changes everything. It's about respect; it's about the very inherent dignity that God has given you as a human being."

AACC director Price said the center will schedule further discussions on the topic of race.

Sherry Fisher