Co-Commentary Editor/Art Director
I was embarrassed to be sitting in Alumni Hall the night Will and Company performed “The New Faces of America.”
“We look to present work that shatters stereotypes of color, of creed, of ability, of gender. We want to provoke discussion, evoke emotion, incite action, encourage change.” These statements come from the mission statement of Will and Company, a not-for-profit theater ensemble that performed during freshmen orientation under the sponsorship of the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs (ODMA).
Characters portrayed included a female biracial college student, a Native American teenager, a young female veteran from the Iraq War, a migrant worker, a southern gay minister, and an Appalachian college student. The performance was amazing, but I do not think Will and Company succeeded in getting their message across.
Despite the fact that the performance sparked many emotions and discussion, when I listened to some of the responses, I was quite disappointed and I wondered, “Aren’t we better than this? ”
Absence of reaction to certain things and presence of reaction to others showed how some terms are more acceptable than others.
People did not react to derogatory terms against the Irish, but there was a collective intake of breath when the n-word was said. When the first photos of gay pride appeared on the slideshow, the atmosphere of the theater rapidly shifted from complacent energy to nearly tangible tension.
Many people laughed. Some made inappropriate and derogatory remarks.
As the monologue of the southern gay preacher began, and the character said that homosexuals should be condemned, one student clapped.
Aren’t we better than this?
It was apparent that some other students agreed with this statement, but even they looked at this lone clapper with disdain and/or embarrassment as they recognized the impropriety.
We were sitting in a presentation about diversity, about recognizing and accepting our differences, about being tolerant of other people. It struck me as inappropriate to be making such blatantly disrespectful comments and actions during such an event.
We have to be better than this.
It only got worse from there; especially after the Appalachian college student took the stage. She explained that Appalachians are the one group at which it is still widely acceptable to poke fun. She listed several “You know you’re a redneck if…” jokes as examples, and many audience members laughed.
Here, I had to take a look at myself. I live in a county that was once largely economically based in tobacco farming, but I didn’t grow up there. Ever since I’d moved to Calvert County, I’d never wanted to firmly associate myself with the redneck population. Until fairly recently, I’d looked down upon the tractor-loving, gun-toting, deer-hunting population of my new home. I’m not perfect, but I realized that I was better than that.
There was a Q&A session at the end of the performance. Mahlia Joyce, director of ODMA, was surprised that the audience didn’t have more questions. There were, however, many thoughts and opinions. It was difficult to hear people who were called upon to speak, because nearly every statement sparked a reaction from the audience.
I got annoyed as the level of disrespect rose; again, I wondered why we weren’t better than this?
McDaniel students offered many ideas that had never been suggested to the crew before. Some of these include a student mother, a person with mental illness, and students with learning differences.
The suggestion of a “super nerd” character, though, incited the most reaction. Now, this is a character to which I can relate, so I was personally a bit disappointed when the audience erupted into boos and contradictions.
Prepare for a bit of irony now.
The loudest section of the audience at this point was a large congregation of student athletes. One of them, in reply, suggested a “jock” character to be the counterpart of the nerd character, with the reasoning that jocks face many negative stereotypes. In my mind I’m going: “Hmm…isn’t it weird that you are reinforcing your negative stereotypes as you attack the nerds? Isn’t it also weird that your section was by far the loudest and most inappropriate during the whole presentation?”
I was pleased that several other students raised their hands to reinforce the idea of a “super nerd” character. Nerds stick together, apparently.
What was even more impressive, though, was when a student athlete volunteered the suggestion of a closeted gay football player. As expected, a couple of people around this guy made some comments along the lines of, “Do you have experience in this area?”
I was so proud of this one young man who said something difficult, fully knowing that it would not be well received by peers. Maybe we can be better.
One positive that can be gained from some of the unfortunate incidents of that evening (according to Joyce) is that the reaction to the presentation “underscored the need to make our campus welcoming and inclusive for everybody.” It highlighted the need to work for greater awareness of the differences present among individuals.
Next year, ODMA plans to work with Will and Company to start the performance earlier to allow students time to process the production and interact in small discussion groups after the show ends.
We can all try to be better. Take the time to learn about a person’s differences before jumping to judgment or stereotype. Be careful when saying things like, “That’s so gay,” or “You know you’re a redneck if…” because you never know who is around you that could find that offensive.
Help make McDaniel College a welcoming environment for people from all walks of life.