In one of my classes we were asked to do an exercise that consisted of the professor reading out some statements and we had to either take a step back, forward or stay still, depending on the instructions. This exercise served to bring our reality and that of our classmates into perspective. At the end we were asked to write a reaction paper, and here’s mine.
I had seen this exercise done before in the movie Freedom Writers but it was done a bit differently. The professor made a straight line on the floor with duck tape and she had asked her students to stand at either side of that line; thus making two parallel lines. The instructions were that the students had to walk up to the line every time a sentence, which she read, related to them. At some point one student would be standing right in front of another student. This way they would see their similarities and feel a connection to their classmates. The purpose was to unify the classroom as a family.
In our case, I saw a different purpose. In our exercise we all started out the same and with each sentence that was read I saw how my classmates and I would take either a step in front or back. I realized that the purpose was totally different from that which I had first thought; and instead of seeing like my classmates and I were a united family, I saw the invisible differences that held us apart. In a way, it placed the silent reality into perspective.
It made me uncomfortable to see how much farther some of my classmates were; especially when they were the traditional Caucasian North American students. As a designated ‘minority’ I am told constantly, even in my home land, that no matter how hard I work I will never be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with said Caucasians; and this exercise made that statement a physical reality. I personally don’t consider myself a minority but I, and others, can’t help but to feel identified with this ideal of the lesser when it’s all we are fed even at home. Seeing how my fellow classmates went further than me made me aware of how those cultural ideals are real.
At the same time, this exercise brought an awakening between the myth and the reality of what it means to be a ‘minority’. As I stood, mid-way away from my fellow Caucasian classmates who were in front of me, I looked back and I saw some of them behind me. In that moment I realized that yes, race had a greater hand in placing me where I was but it was also the opportunities I was given. My parents may not be rich and I am the product of the public school educational system, but I had done fairly well for myself. I mean, I am in graduate school after all. In reality, race and cultural values, pull you back but I believe that it is our actions that pull us forward. It is a sort of fighting for your life kind of struggle, where you can sit down and believe you are all those negative stereotypes or you can try to null that stereotype and rewrite it.
Another thing I noticed throughout the exercise was that some sentences talked about our ancestors and I had no problem with that until I noticed I don’t know much about them. When talking about family, my mother and father mostly mention the immediate family like grandparents and at times great-grandparents. However, if I ever asked my parents about how our people came to be they’ll probably give me the generic story about the Puerto Rican mixture of the Spaniard, the African slave and the native Taino. And I know that, what I don’t know is if we were part of the Spaniards who owned land or if we were the slaves who worked it. I’m pretty sure we don’t have much or any Taino heritage because if we did our noses would be sharper and longer, and our hair would be straighter and not so wild and curly. So, as the sentences were pronounced I tried to make a coherent answer for myself and not being able to come up with one I ended up just standing still. It worries me that I don’t know about my ancestors and I believe this exercise has ignited my interest in my search for my real roots.
Finally, the there was one thing that really struck me about the exercise and it was at the end when the professor said “that white board is the American Dream, how close are you?”. That one question knocked the wind out of me and left me more confused than the heritage situation. As a ‘minority’ I am told that my definition of the American Dream is a revised and limited one. Yet, as I was standing in that one room, three feet away from that board, I noticed that I wasn’t that far away. So in a way I am in the right track to my dream, which is not necessarily the American Dream but part of it; but at the same time I am being held back by my mind-set and my perception not only of me but of my classmates. Believing that I am lesser than them is what keeps me still; it is that which makes my potential tank and causes self-sabotage. Also, believing that I am better than those who did not step next to or ahead of me creates a poisonous effect because it makes me feel superior and blinds me to that other person’s needs.
In conclusion, the level playing field exercise did the opposite of the Freedom Writer’s exercise. It made us see that we are not all equal and that, like a game, we are at different levels. At the same time it made us more aware of the struggles our classmates are going through. It broke some stereotypes we may have had of each other and it made us realize that even though we are in different stages of life that we are all there, in that same room, working for a common goal.
Signing off, TWS
P.S. Here’s the LEVEL PLAYING FIELD document if you’re interested in duplicating the exercise.