A student response to MLK celebration on campus

| 1/22/14 3:01pm

To the Editors of the Grand Valley Lanthorn,

Let me just preface and say Martin Luther King did not die for this—or rather: he was not assassinated for this. And by “this,” I am referring to the disappointing celebratory programs used to commemorate this great man’s legacy.

And a great man indeed, full of revolutionary spirit and an overwhelming hope to defeat white supremacy, militarism, and poverty. However, we do not hear of this version. The version we hear tears apart and whitewashes his actual ideology to portray a watered-down depiction of this icon to fit into some hidden hegemonic agenda. I thought this portrayal would alter once I entered college, but I stand corrected.

Wanting to become active in MLK day, I decided to sign up for the poverty simulation. I did not have high expectations going into this, but I never thought I would leave feeling so disrespected. Firstly, we must address that during the simulation, cumulative statistics were given to emphasize the mass of people living in poverty. Race and gender identities were used to show the discrimination of people affected by poverty. Yet, people of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, veterans, undocumented citizens, and people who have been incarcerated and/or have criminal records were failed to be mentioned in these statistics. Black people and “refugees” were only used as examples to further the emphasis of the amount of poverty rather than explain why the statistics are so discriminatory to certain identities in poverty.

For example, seeing as Michigan has not passed an anti-discrimination act for the LGBT community, someone can be fired for being gay or trans*. Seeing as we live in a heteronormative society, this leads to employment and housing discrimination that disproportionately affects this community which adds to that “cumulative” statistic of poverty. There is also the fact homelessness is so widespread within our world. Just locally, there are nineteen unoccupied, available housing units for every one person living in poverty. Although unfortunately, I did not hear these facts come from any of the facilitators.

Furthermore, there was no explanation given to why poverty is so prevalent in our society. Why are so many people in poverty if we are living in the richest nation in the world? There was no talking of the fact that we live in a society where everything is commodified and consumerism is placed on a pedestal before our personhood. There was no mention of the fact that people do not have equal access to education, affordable healthcare, and opportunities to housing and employment—which are all reasons for why poverty burns so vehemently through this society and why it is so hard for someone already born into poverty to ever achieve more. In this simulation, people were just poor and they were forced to struggle the rest of their lives like this, well, just because.

There was also patronizing comments made during the simulation such as: “Did you have time to read your child a bedtime story?” or “Did you discuss potential college plans with your child?” Directly insinuating that if you are in poverty and trying to provide basic necessities for your child, you are not able to emotionally be there and support your child and therefore, you can never actually be considered a “good parent.”

And the entire time, it was said: “Do not treat this as a game.” But, how can we treat this as a realistic situation when we are not being educated accurately on systemic issues? There were options between spending money on food for the week or taking your child to the doctor, but it was never stated that some people are not even afforded these choices in real life.

We are on a campus where the shade of white is all too familiar and the idea of diversity is more of a strategic tactic to recruit students rather than implementing realistically on our campus. The statistic of white children living in poverty was just above twelve percent which was used comparatively to black and Latino people living in poverty at almost forty percent, but there was no explanation for why this gap was so significant. This leaves students reaffirming their subconscious stereotypical prejudices of why people of color are disproportionately not succeeding in our society of “meritocracy,” but white folk somehow just are. For as much as we overuse and abuse the “I have a dream” speech, those statistics share a discouraging view that we are far from living in a racially equal society.

MLK once said “Nothing in the world is more dangerous that sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” So, when we do not cover why the statistic of people living in poverty is so racially segregated, we are educating ignorance. When we are not inclusive to all identities suffering from a life of poverty, we are educating ignorance. And when we do not address why poverty even exists this ultimately prepares students with a life of ignorance; we are setting up these students to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. If anything, this program just allowed students to leave this simulation with a sense of relief that they were not “poor.” This left students with a coping mechanism for classist guilt rather than actually educating.

One cannot instill the struggle, the pain, and the fear of living in poverty within two hours to a majority of people who have not and might never have to experience such circumstances. And it deeply saddens me that Grand Valley thinks we can overcome poverty by attempting to co-opt other people’s suffering. We cannot continue to project ideas of diversity and liberal education if we keep providing these surface-level programs and ideals. I should be able to leave a program with new information that I did not already have.

Now, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be celebrating MLK day, because we should—but we need to do better. We need to actually offer comprehensive information to our students and faculty to prepare them to make any societal changes in the future. This institution needs to be an environment where students can develop and strengthen their critical thinking skills. We should be offering an environment where students are free to evolve in their thinking. MLK fought for change—not for rewarding mediocrity. MLK said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” Now, it’s time for Grand Valley to truly educate.

Rachael Blansett

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