I thank the editors of The Point News for giving me the opportunity to express my thoughts in this column. From time to time, I hope to provide my perspective on issues and questions of concern, and even to persuade my colleagues to join me! Watch this space for future columns; your comments are welcome!—Dean Ifill
About a month ago, my wife rescued a cute terrier mix from the local shelter where she is a volunteer. The newest member of the family, Toby, is small, smart, energetic, gets along famously with our other dogs and adores my wife. There’s only one problem: he is deathly afraid of me! When I come home, as the other dogs rush to greet me, he hangs back. As I approach, he scurries from room to room, alternating between checking me out and running away—a mixture of curiosity and caution. I wonder why. Is it that he doesn’t know what I’m likely to do if he approaches me? Is it my deep voice, or my exuberant manner? Is he afraid that he might do the wrong thing?
As I consider the conundrum that is Toby, I recognize that there are some analogies to our life on this campus. At St. Mary’s, we tout our close-knit community, while also noting with pride that this is a place where you can “be yourself.” Indeed, we are blessed with a broadly diverse campus, especially considering our very distinctive character as a small, public honors college focused on the liberal arts. We can find people from a nearly bewildering variety of backgrounds and perspectives that express themselves across more than two dozen majors and nearly ninety clubs. Therein lies a challenge. Most of us are encountering people who differ from us in profound ways, yet we must find ways to work, play, live together in some semblance of community.
How do we negotiate those differences, whether it is by race, sexual orientation, political or religious belief, income class, or a host of other categories? What if it’s the first time we’ve actually encountered this difference, and our knowledge is, at best, second or third hand? We are curious, but cautious. We want to connect, but are reluctant to cause offense or embarrassment due to our ignorance. If we relate at all, then, we do so on a superficial—safe—level, scurrying from topic to topic to avoid causing problems.
Over my years at St. Mary’s and other small colleges, I find it ironic that these fears go in both directions, but there’s another feature. For the first few weeks Toby was with us, I found myself resenting his “unreasoning fear” of me. How dare he treat me as though I were dangerous? As an African American male, I’m familiar with this feeling. When I was younger, and people would shy away from me, I would meet this unreasoning fear with a hostile glare brimming with self-righteousness, which of course would reinforce the anxiety. I’ve learned that, even if the barrier that separates me from others is not of my making, I can reach across with little risk.
It appears that more and more, members of our community are also finding ways to reach across, and our students are leading the way. I see close friendships blossom across racial, class, and other lines. In presentations like “St. Mary’s Hear and Now” and “St. Mary’s Listen/Hear” our students are teaching each other how to have difficult conversations with mutual respect, understanding and humor. In doing so, we are building a stronger St. Mary’s that can “thrive on diversity,” as our charter promises. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, and I am dedicated to doing all I can to promote the splendid tapestry that we have woven together. Maybe I can convince Toby that I’m not so scary after all!
I’m just saying!