During my last few years of undergrad, I worked as a supervisor at a Chicago Tribune distribution warehouse in the southwest suburbs. The job was seven nights a week, in the middle of the night. It was an exhausting routine.
Thankfully, I worked with some fun and interesting people, which brought a touch of joy and humor to the nightly grind. The nature of the job had us standing at workstations for at least a few hours a night as we prepped newspapers for delivery to homes and stores, which gave us plenty of time to talk, joke around, and get to know one another.
One of my favorite people was Sylvester, a soft-spoken guy in his 40s who worked as a janitor at a grade school during the day. He had a quiet, unpretentious cool about him: one night, our whole section carried off on a conversation about who would play us in a movie about this job. Everyone agreed immediately that the only person cool enough to play Sylvester was Samuel L. Jackson. Sylvester nodded in agreement, and we moved on to the rest of the cast.
He also had a depth of sophistication he only let out in glimpses After a few years of knowing him, out of nowhere he brought me a huge portfolio of poetry he had written. I didn’t even know he wrote, and suddenly he’s giving me a manuscript.
A childhood friend of mine, Caleb, worked at the station next to Sylvester. The three of us tended to be at the center of the nightly conversations. One night, Caleb and Sylvester got onto some subject, and Caleb said, “and, you know, how I’m white and you’re African-American, and…”
As the conversation continued, Caleb said “African-American” several more times. No offense was intended, and none was taken. However, when Caleb was away from his workstation for a minute, Sylvester motioned me over and chuckled, “Why does he keep calling me ‘African-American’? I’m black.”
The answer is that white, suburban kids like Caleb and I had been taught that “African-American” is the proper, polite, politically correct term. I’m sure Sylvester knew that to be the case. Honestly, I have zero recollection of how I responded, or if I even did; I just remember Sylvester laughing and shaking his head as he continued working.
It was a revelatory moment for me. Sylvester wasn’t mad or frustrated with Caleb. He was expressing his general irritation at how the label that gets applied to him is not how he identifies himself. It was such a quick moment, yet it opened my eyes to the depths and complexities of identity, labels, and language.
A few years later, at the end of graduate school, I began teaching at Robert Morris University in Chicago, which has been ranked regularly as the most diverse university in the Midwest. Exposure to diversity was something I sorely lacked up to that point in my life: I was a white kid who grew up in the middle-class white suburbs and went to a white high school and then a predominantly white university. Everyone was Catholic, to the point that I interrogated a kid on the playground in third grade when he told me he was some strange thing called a “Lutheran”.
I asked him, “Do you believe in Jesus?”
He said yes, and I said, “So, then you’re Catholic.”
And he said, “No, I’m Lutheran.”
I finally decided none of this made sense and went to play on the swings.
I am the sort of person who relates to others through stories. Tell me about your morning run, and I’ll tell you stories about my 5ks and half-marathons. Tell me about your bad date, and I’ll rattle off horror stories from my single days. Whatever you can tell me, I’ve got some response.
At least, that’s what I used to think. Very early in my teaching career, I learned differently.
One of the earliest examples was when a student in her late 20s, just several years older than me at the time, came to my office to explain why she was struggling in my class. She said the content of the writing class was hard, because English was her second language. She then explained that she missed several classes due to the difficulties she was having caring for her children, and how it had gotten so much harder since her husband had recently gone to jail. She couldn’t even finish her story before she started bawling in my office. My brain searched through every piece of data in its archive for some story to respond with before it told me, “I got nothing.”
So, I just sat there in stunned silence. All I could do was listen, before offering up some small solutions for the miniscule part of her world that was my English class.
I grew up in a nice home in a safe neighborhood with two parents who gave me anything I could want or need. Plenty of my students came from broken homes, surrounded by violence, with nothing resembling the comforts I was so lucky to have in life. It’s not that I was completely ignorant to the world, but there is a vast difference between knowing about issues like these conceptually, and having a kid standing in front of you telling you about being homeless or losing someone they love to violence.
The story that surprised me the most, though, is one that I’ve heard frequently over the last decade. I have had so many students tell me that their families are angry at them for attending college. The first time I heard that from a student, I was just like, “That’s a thing?” For me, and all the other kids manufactured out in the suburbs, going to college wasn’t a goal or an accomplishment – it was an inevitability. I dropped out of classes my first semester of college and told my parents I wanted to just get a job. They were having none of that, and literally researched schools near home that were still accepting students and then my dad drove me to one to enroll. Yet, there are students pursuing their education by any means necessary despite being actively discouraged by the people closest to them for familial, financial, cultural, or societal reasons.
I learned that I came from very different circumstances, often much easier and fortunate circumstances, and that sometimes the best option is to swallow my storytelling instincts.
During the summer of 2016, I was teaching an Introduction to Composition course during the evening to mostly non-traditional adult students. It was an excellent group. They were smart, funny, attentive, engaged. Later in the term, when we started our unit on argumentation, I planned to use my usual routine of throwing out some generic debate topics for the class to discuss as we covered the elements of argument. Instead, I decided to try something different.
Trying anything new in a college classroom is scary. No matter how well-prepared or well-intentioned the new activity, lecture, or assignment may be, there is no guarantee how students will respond until it’s already out there on the table. Knowing the students, I was confident the idea would work, but I still stressed all day that it would blow up in my face.
I started class that night by telling my story about Sylvester. The students reflected the diversity of the university body, and I was worried that telling a story involving race might come off the wrong way. When I got to the punchline — “Why is he calling me ‘African American’? I’m black.” — I held my breath.
The whole class burst into laughter, and I was relieved. I moved onto the next piece:
“So, here’s my question for you: is it okay for a white dude like me to call someone ‘black’?”
I barely finished the question and a hand shot up in the back of the room. It was Monica, a sharp, hilarious woman. I couldn’t wait to hear her response, but I motioned for her to put her hand down and asked everyone to take a couple minutes to collect their thoughts by writing down a response.
A white guy sitting in the middle of the room looked a bit confused, then asked, “Are you asking all of us this question?” The nervousness in his voice caused the question mark to squeak a little bit.
I said, “Yes, everybody.”
When I opened the floor for discussion, I went right back to Monica. Her usual energy and humor tempered for a moment as she explained how adamant she was that she be identified as “African-American” and that the term “black” was completely offensive to her.
A man in his mid-20s disagreed: “I am black. I’m not African. I’ve never been to Africa. My parents have never been to Africa. I am black.”
A guy from Jamaica said, “I’m just Jamaican.”
The discussion swept through the room, and all of the students opened up about how they identify themselves and how they feel about different terms attributed to themselves and others. The discussion was always respectful, but did get heated at times. At one point, everyone in class was so eager to share their thoughts that I had to call for quiet, at which point Monica reverted to her normal self and yelled, “Paul, you just wanted to get everyone pissed off tonight!”
It was the perfect line to cut the tension in the room, and everyone laughed. I smiled and said, “Yes! It’s my job to get you all pissed off!”
As the discussion continued, a younger white man in the back of the room raised his hand. His tone was serious when he said, “I think it’s important to consider each situation differently when it comes to these words. Like, for example, a lot of my friends are black, and we’re all like family. And we all refer to each other as….”
This whole discussion had been going so well. Everyone knew what he was about to say, and in my head I was screaming, “Don’t do it, man!”
And he said it. And I thought, “Well, shit.”
I waited for the room to erupt. Instead, his classmates offered thoughtful, well-reasoned responses, whether they agreed or disagreed with his point. It total, the whole class period was largely filled with respectful discourse and active listening. Having learned my lesson years prior, I followed their lead: I spoke very little as the students led the conversation and educated me on ideas and perspectives that I have no personal story with which to respond.
It was refreshing and promising to see a room full of diverse individuals share ideas, perspectives, and even disagreements, and to actually listen to one another in the process– something we need desperately in these volatile times. In the pursuit of empathy and equality, listening is critical, particularly to voices that have often been overlooked and ignored. Listening by itself is not a solution, but it is an often-overlooked first step.
Paul Gaszak is an Academic Dean at Robert Morris University in Chicago, and he was an English Professor for over a decade. He has performed at several Live Lit shows including Story Club North and South Side, and his writing has appeared in several publications including McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in the Chicagoland area (ie: suburbs) with his wife Sarah.
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