Common Time speaker: Words can hurt

During common time last Wednesday, Rich A. Salas, Ph.D. came to the ballroom and shared with the first-year MOI classes how to recognize the challenges, dangers, and impacts that language has on society. Most have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but Salas presented the idea that words can actually “scar for a lifetime.”

Towards the beginning of his presentation, he showed the audience a video called “What kind of Asian are you?” It consisted of a man asking a woman who looked Asian where she was from over and over again until she eventually said her ancestors were from Korea. Salas used this video to show the difference of intentions versus impact. The point he made was that even good intentions can hurt people due to language alone. The video showed that people tend to put Americans in a box of what they “should” look like.

Following the clip, he had the audience discuss the video and then invited four students up to the podium to share their thoughts. First-year Dylan Connolly mentioned that, although he could identify with the white man in the video, he understood that people need to learn how to ask those types of questions, such as asking where someone’s ancestors are from instead.

Rich Salas taught that messages can be demeaning. People need to be proactive instead of reactive. The only way to try and conquer these biases is by having difficult conversations with peers. This will have an impact and allow one to be mindful of stereotypes.

Unfortunately, stereotypes are a learned behavior that occurs between zero and five years old. Salas showed students a clip of the Doll Test researchers have done on children. The child is placed in front of two dolls, one black and one white. The bias was always, no matter what race the child was, in favor of the white doll and against the black one. It was frightening to see that even children have that bias engraved in them at such a young age. What can be done to change that? Salas suggests to start understanding that everyone has biases. Then, actively look for these biases, ask oneself where they came from, and question oneself and others about them.

Salas has experienced plenty of difficult conversations himself. As the Director of Multicultural Affairs at Des Moines University, it happens more often than not. He gets through the most challenging conversations by following the “BAR” method. BAR stands for breathe, acknowledge and respond. He makes sure to breathe, acknowledge the person speaking, and then respond in a constructive way. One of his biggest projects right now is having “Global Citizenship” workshops. He focuses on the students that are in the medical and science field. They are going to be working with people for the rest of their careers, and it is not just one set of a population. Salas calls this focus the Diversity Health Series and its goal is for the students to gain a better understanding of biases and the impact they can have in patient care. It will provide a platform for them as physicians.

“It is important to create spaces, especially now in the political season, for equality,” said Salas.  He made sure to mention that one doesn’t have to focus on getting rid of the bias completely, just managing it. This concept is also mentioned in the book “Blindspot.” There is no clear evidence that says that biases can go away long-term, but they can be managed in the short-term. Salas did a great job of making this clear.

“Not everyone shares the same biases,” noted first-year Christopher Valentin.

Overall, the speaker brought a lot of great points to the table and shined a light on what can be done to changes the racial issues present in society. The end was especially noteworthy. Salas tied his whole speech together with the strum of his guitar and a beautiful interpretation of “De Colores,” or “(Made) of Colors,” a Spanish folk song from the Roman Catholic Cursillo movement.

“(Music is a) universal language that impacts all and challenges a deeper meaning regardless of diversity,” Salas concluded.

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