2015-03-05 / Front Page

A different lens

UNE students talk race, perceptions
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer


Chinonye Okeke, a senior biology major at University of New England, checks out computer-generated renditions of what she would look like as a white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Indian person in the Race Experience Kiosk. The kiosk was displayed for a week at the student center to help spark a dialogue on race. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) Chinonye Okeke, a senior biology major at University of New England, checks out computer-generated renditions of what she would look like as a white, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Indian person in the Race Experience Kiosk. The kiosk was displayed for a week at the student center to help spark a dialogue on race. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) BIDDEFORD – A student group at the University of New England displayed a kiosk in the student center last week that allowed students to view photos of what they would look like as various races. Race Experience Kiosk, brought to campus by UNE United, a club that promotes cultural awareness, allows viewers to see how they might appear in a different skin, whether black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Indian.

Senior Chinonye Okeke, president of the club, said the kiosk was part of a series of activities the club wanted to sponsor to recognize February as Black History Awareness Month. Okeke said the club’s goal is to generate discussions about race.

One student said she realized when her face changed to different races, that she wasn’t really that much different,” Okeke said.

In addition to the kiosk, Okeke said the club sponsored two speakers at the campus – Daryl Davis and Arno Michaelis. Davis is an African American musician and author of “Klan-Destine Relationships.” Davis befriended a member of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to understand their mindset, and eventually convinced the member to give up his robes and abandon the organization.

Michaelis is a former white supremacist skinhead who grew up in a family troubled with alcoholism and violence. He was a founding member of Centurion, a metal band that promoted hate. In 1992, when Michaelis was about to become a father, he began to realize how violence and hate were the products of his own upbringing.

Okeke said UNE United helped sponsor more events for Black History Awareness Month this year than in previous years, and the two speakers enlightened students how racial differences can be overcome with patience and understanding.

“(Davis’s) story made us realize that no matter the differences you have, or how much you disagree with someone, you should sit down and talk through it,” Okeke said.

The event at which Davis and Michaelis spoke lasted nearly four hours, Okeke said, because students were engaged in discussing race with them.

Donna Gaspar-Jarvis, director of the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs & Diversity, commended student leaders in United for promoting diversity initiatives on campus.

“While fun and engaging, it is important to do more than just ‘celebrate diversity’ through surface level activities such as food, music, dance and clothing,” Gaspar-Jarvis said, “but to also delve into more provocative or thought-provoking topics and difficult conversations around issues like race and racism and all areas of multicultural and social justice issues.”

Gaspar-Jarvis said the films, speakers and programs the student groups on campus helped sponsor this year are sparking conversation.

Okeke said the race kiosk was especially helpful for students to broaden their racial perspectives because Maine doesn’t have the same racial diversity as other parts of the nation.

Gaspar-Jarvis agreed, saying, “As a predominantly white campus in the whitest state in the country, it is absolutely imperative that students have opportunities to increase their diversity awareness … It is important for students to develop self-awareness around issues of identity, privilege, bias and assumptions, and also to raise awareness and cultural humility in learning with and from people from backgrounds different from themselves.”

According to the university’s Office of Institutional Research, about 6 percent of the students at UNE are racial minorities, and there is a female-to-male ratio of 70-30 percent among undergraduate students at both the Biddeford and Portland campuses.

Despite the low percentages of racial minorities, Okeke said students still understand the importance of race identity and appreciation.

“This is no place for hate,” she said.

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