Learning to listen
Robert Alvarez | Wednesday, April 16, 2014
When I was a kid, after school a man with a shopping cart would set up shop outside of my school’s gates. The man was rather short, with blue jeans, a blue working shirt, bronze skin and a thick bushy black mustache. Each time I saw him, I eagerly checked my pockets to see if I had the requisite change. The man had two items on his menu: corn-on-the-cob-on-a-stick and chicharrones. The corn you would lather with butter and douse with chili-lime powder, making for a tasty, if messy snack. My favorite, however, were the chicharrones. Shaped like pinwheels and made of fried flour, the chicharrones were sold in big plastic bags that were perfect receptacles for copious amounts of hot sauce and lime juice. The man would have squeeze-bottles of lime juice and Tapatío hot sauce in his cart for that exact purpose. Spray the goods into the bag and shake it up. The more hot sauce you could handle on your chicharrones, the cooler you were. Fact.
The above is an example of a story, a story that happens to be from my childhood. From my story, you could probably infer that I’m from the American Southwest (L. A. represent) and that I lived in a predominately Latino neighborhood (81 percent). If I told you more stories about myself, you would begin to compose a portrait of who I am based on what I have experienced. Our stories make up who we are; sharing our stories is giving a part of ourselves. This act of giving involves both risk and trust: risk because there is no telling how our stories will be received and trust because no one shares any story without hope of being understood. I chose the above story because it was an innocuous story of a cute kid enjoying an incredibly unhealthy snack.
Not all stories are innocuous, however: many — and I think the best ones — are jarring. They disturb us. They make us think. They make us change. Such are the kinds of stories that have been shared on the Tumblr blog, I, Too, Am Notre Dame. Judging by the Viewpoints of late, I think it is safe to say that it has jarred us. I don’t think it has changed us yet, though.
The stories of I, Too, Am Notre Dame, are jarring because they expose the reality of racial prejudice (prejudice meaning any judgments that we carry about a person independent of our engagement with that person) in our idyllic Notre Dame world. For many of us, these experiences do not fit with our view of Notre Dame because we have never experienced or seen incidents of the type the persons of I, Too, Am Notre Dame share with us. This has caused many to dismiss these stories and the people behind them as exaggerated or flat-out lies.
The problem is, however, that they are not lies. They are stories that our peers have risked their own likenesses to share with us. Our own experience is untrustworthy here precisely because it is the nature of a majority to miss the experience of a minority. If one person in a group of 100 witnesses something incredible, does it mean that it didn’t happen because the majority didn’t see it? Of course not. The only reason why the 99 would not believe the one percent is because the 99 do not trust that one. And here is the crux of the problem.
Let us trust our peers. If a person tells us something we would rather disbelieve, let us trust them. Storytelling is not an idle exercise. We share stories, especially painful ones, to find understanding, to find empathy. This empathy forms the cathartic effect experienced by anyone who has vented to friends about a problem. Through this, understanding relationships are built and communities are formed on a deeper level. By corollary, when the story remains unlistened to, alienation occurs.
Is it any wonder, then, that Notre Dame observes the salad bowl effect where students tend to coalesce along racial and cultural lines? When we seek to be understood, we go to those who can understand. That is why organizations like the Black Student Association, La Alianza and the Asian American Association exist: they create a space for students to share their stories with whomever is willing to listen (emphasis on whomever). I, Too, Am Notre Dame is born out of this fundamental mission of sharing stories, especially the painful ones.
Until we accept our minority students for their whole selves — including the parts that challenge us — our community will continue to suffer from prejudices that affect the few but harm the whole. Go to the I, Too, Am Notre Dame website. Listen to the stories there. Let us allow the stories to change our awareness and allow our awareness to change our behavior. Hopefully by doing so, we can build a culture of storytelling that learns from and values all of its diverse persons — Asian, black, Latino and even white.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.