Difficult Conversations: race and ethnicity

Alli Parandi


More than 20 students sat in a circle of chairs in the Garret House to participate in a discussion about how to have conversations about race and ethnicity. The event, Difficult Conversations, took place on Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m. and is the second dialogue in a series of events that will discuss difficult topics. “You come into the space thinking you’re the only one feeling a certain way,” said Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, Jenny Guerra. “But then, the moment someone [states] something, then everyone’s like ‘I can relate,’ or ‘me too’.”  

The event was facilitated by Guerra and Associate Professor of Sociology Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez. The event’s purpose was to begin an open conversation about race and ethnicity. Many students wanted to know how to  confront the problem of racial stereotyping and problematic assumptions by others with family members, friends, and their peers at Whittier College.

Guerra began the conversation by asking students to share why they came, what their fears were about having the conversation, and what they hoped to learn on anonymous notecards. Overmyer-Velazquez and Guerra read them aloud to begin the event. Students then shared their experiences having conversations about race so they could best support one another. 

Overmyer-Velazquez emphasized that learning about other groups of people is a good first step in learning how to discuss race in the U.S. “Instead of fitting in, integrate yourself into other societies that you do not have a lot of knowledge about,” Overmyer-Velazquez said.

Guerra agreed, encouraging students to think more before they speak and teach others to do so as well.“If you aren’t willing to educate yourself, you’re staying ignorant,” said Guerra. “Use your time to take a step back [and] acknowledge your privileges.”

Students also asked questions about how to best support those dealing with stereotyping. Guerra answered that the best way for students to understand one another is through the practice of communication. Other topics covered were racism, processing miscommunication, and students’ experiences with discussing sensitive topics at Whittier College. The conversation freely moved from topic to topic and many students shared their own personal experiences.

 “I think people don’t feel comfortable asking questions because they fear making other people uncomfortable or to keep others from being offended,” said second-year Ivie Colón. “I think people also fear discovering inner phobias that they fear they will have to later defend.”

 “There is a lot of ignorance, misunderstanding, and lack of knowledge,” said Guerra. “Every individual is a spectrum. They have always seen things in another way [and] people have to be open minded [about it]. It’s a process, it becomes difficult when you see someone in a different light.”

Guerra was pleased with both the turnout and discussion from the students. “It is not until you come to college and you have a professor who challenges everything that has been taught to you and [that you] seek views from different lenses,” said Guerra. “There are sometimes when you have to confront others. It only becomes difficult when you don’t try to confront others about your experience.” The next event in the series is on Feb. 22 in the Hartley House and will cover how to talk about sexual identity.