Have you ever been the only (fill in category) person in the room? Race, class, gender, age, body type, marital status—any number of identifiers can place us outside the norm, depending on the room. Otherness is a specific experience, especially for those who don’t live it every day.
A couple of my students unwittingly placed themselves squarely into the role of “other” in an assignment outside our classroom, and I suspect learned a more powerful lesson than I ever could have taught them in class.
The assignment was to find, attend and write an article covering an event. When two students proposed attending a senior citizen fundraising fashion show on the other side of town, I immediately approved the idea.
The day they turned in their assignments, the students went around the room describing their experiences. The two who attended the fashion show could not contain themselves.
“Did you know?” they asked me.
“Did I know what?”
“Did you know it would be…”
And then I said it. Right out loud. “Did I know you two would probably be the only white people in a room of hundreds of African-American community members? And that this would be your first time having that experience? Yes, I knew.”
And I also knew they’d have a fabulous time, which they did.
These are two smart, insightful, kind college students whose life experiences and histories thus far did not include being identifiably different from everyone else in a roomful of people.
They quickly got over the shock of being so obviously other and learned the extraordinary power of journalism, of living in a larger world and of having an open mind and open heart. They described how they introduced themselves around, and they got the greatest quotes. They were welcomed warmly and quickly found themselves in the most interesting conversations with a marvelously complex, diverse group of individuals within a large group that, at first glance, looked simply “not like us” to the students.
They interviewed elder statesmen of the community; the 90-something matriarchs; established city officials and rising political stars; the parents, children and grandchildren of our city—people these students do not normally run into on their/our majority-white university campus, just one mile away.
The students were particularly excited by the comments from one middle-aged man who brought his own children to the event as a way to honor the legacy of his late father, a famed city religious leader. The students understood the newsworthiness of finding a source like that to feature in their articles.
As their journalism teacher, I valued their news judgment. As a teacher interested in larger lessons, I was excited for my students. As a member of this community, I was reminded pointedly why we must work—every day—to find each other. The middle-aged, African-American father who gave my students such great quotes? An old friend of mine from junior high and high school.
His life and mine intersected three decades ago because our hometown made history by voluntarily integrating our schools, giving us all the chance to mindfully experience, value and get beyond our “otherness.”
Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.