By Jake Altinger
At the first round of the PPCC Civil Discourse forums, “Talking About Culture,” PPCC’s diverse faculty and student body drove compelling discussions on the social construct of race in America and ignited debate over whether sexuality is chosen or innate at the Rampart, Downtown, and Centennial campuses on Sept. 26, 27, and 28, respectively.
The series is sponsored by the Global Village, the Student Activities Board, Phi Theta Kappa, and the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
The specific content and focus of each forum varied slightly from speaker to speaker, campus to campus. A crowd of roughly 50 students attended the Centennial forum on Thursday, where professors Sandi Harvey and Sarah McMahon delivered an intriguing presentation on the social construction of race in American and world history.
“There is no biological justification for the concept of race,” Harvey said.
Harvey said the concept of race was developed by Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes in order to justify the atrocities of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Harvey described how media deepens racial divisions by depicting other ethnic groups as inhuman and immoral or fetishizing them as innocent, childish, and ignorant, citing comic book covers from the 1920s, Disney movies such as Pocahontas and Aladdin, and screenshots from contemporary films today.
Students J’Aime Sirvaitis and Kimberly McCabe also reflected on the influence of media on their own racial biases.
Sirvaitis cited the work of Rudyard Kipling as an early influence on his perception of race.
“They were adventure stories to me when I was eight years old. Now that I’m going through college, I’ve got a whole different lens,” Sirvaitis said. “I have a bunch of sticky notes in my copy of The Jungle Book pointing out all these ridiculous, racist things.”
McCabe said it “kind of slapped [her] in the face” when she realized how movies and other media’s depictions of black people gave her a subconscious negative attitude toward people of color.
“I’m still grappling with it,” McCabe said. “In high school, I did not understand the attitudes black people would have towards white people, as their reaction to our racism. They were reacting to us being racist to them for so long, and I saw that in a negative way. I didn’t understand their reaction.”
McCabe believes it is crucial for white Americans to acknowledge their own racial biases and support minority groups fighting for racial equality.
“White people value other white people’s opinions more than they value people of color’s opinions, even among the young people that want to see change,” McCabe said. “There’s a line between speaking over people of color and standing up for them, and I think that’s a line that’s crossed too often.”
At the Downtown forum on Wednesday, professors Bruce McCluggage and Amy Cornish facilitated a more casual and intimate discussion amongst a small, yet diverse, crowd of about 15 students.
Xavier Fretard moved to the US from France in 2013 and works for ITSS at PPCC.
Fretard was shocked to discover almost every application form in the US requires the applicant to disclose his or her race.
“In France, it’s actually illegal to do that,” Fretard said. “Because you are not supposed to know what the other person’s race is, especially if you have to make a decision about giving them service.”
Although he has lived in the US four years now, Fretard said he is still offended every time he sees a box for race on a form.
“I refuse to check it,” Fretard said. “If they ask me, I will put Other or NA or just don’t insert anything.” He further discusses, “It’s not just the forms. It’s everywhere here. When people talk to you, they ask, ‘Hey, what’s your race?’ What do you mean – what’s my race? I’m human!”
Student and Global Village ambassador Mandetebe Bitema immigrated to the US from Togo in West Africa.
Bitema shared what a “culture shock” it was to experience the emphasis American culture places on race and how that emphasis created a barrier to feeling welcome in his new home country.
“I had a friend who told me, ‘Don’t be acting like you’re a black American because you’re not black,’” Bitema said. “It’s kind of intimidating when you end up finding out that you’re not accepted in the community as you thought you would be.”
Bitema’s story echoed a point Dr. Regina Lewis made the day before: “There is a difference between being white and whiteness, between being black and blackness.”
Lewis spoke at the Rampart forum on Tuesday to a crowd of over 50, where sexuality emerged as a point of contention among students.
Students at the forum were given a handout with a list of cultural identifiers – nerds, gamers, college, farmers, Millennials, LGBTQ, religion, deaf, military, white, athletes, atheist, black, and Hispanic.
When asked which category the identifier “LGBTQ” described, student Lucas Holland said he believed it was a co-culture – that people choose to be LGBTQ, but a person’s relationship to his or her parents and trauma in early childhood heavily influence that choice.
“I really don’t know anybody that’s gay or bisexual, to be honest with you,” Holland said. “I knew some gay people, very good friends. They just kind of disappeared.”
Student Lisa-Marie Miller disagreed with Holland, insisting that people do not choose their sexual orientation.
“I don’t think it is a choice – how you feel,” Miller said. “It’s something that’s in you.”
Although Miller currently has a boyfriend, she has many friends who are LGBTQ and considers herself part of that community, too.
Faculty speakers said they hope students come away from the series with a deeper understanding of how culture is constructed and a greater willingness to understand the cultural perspectives of groups and individuals who differ from themselves.
“We have to come together, whether it’s Pikes Peak Community College or the United States of America,” Lewis said. “If we don’t come together, it is a guarantee that we will fall.”
The second series of forums, “How to Disagree in College,” will take place Oct. 24-26, and the final series, “Debating America,” will take place Nov. 28-30.