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Relating to race

Pop quiz-you get off the bus at West Campus and are greeted by students with cameras who ask, "Is affirmative action fair? Do you think about race every day? Would you date someone of another race?"

If you are someone who generally keeps to yourself about such subjects or hesitates to participate in race-related dialogue on campus, your candid response to the camera is exactly what these students seek.

Who is behind these pointed questions? A group of students enrolled in the house course "Black, White and Shades of Gray." Having embarked on the ambitious project to promote campus dialogue about race relations, their goal is to spark dialogue among all people on campus--not simply those who have shown a particular interest in the subject, but everyone.

"The reason we started this is we were trying to get the greater Duke community involved because often discussion about race falls within a few people," said sophomore Sarah Levin, one of the house course instructors.

The idea developed at a dinner among house course participants who desired to broaden the spectrum of student awareness.

"We went to a Chinese buffet and talked about what we could do to stop making it a discussion just among us," Levin explained. After deciding to board buses and pose questions to other students, the project leaders then had the idea to actually film the responses.

In addition to videotaping responses, the group has hosted a table in the Bryan Center where students who wish to participate in the discussion in a more anonymous manner can do so. There, students can express their concerns through writing and graffiti on paper and cloth.

"It's a two-part project because we feel that people might be intimidated by the cameras," Levin explained.

At their table in the Bryan Center, house course member Shaina Saporta asked a student if she would write anonymously on the cloth. The student said she could write something, but was not going to write her honest thoughts.

"Please do be honest," Saporta responded. "It's completely confidential, and that type of response is what we're looking for."

After four days of filming and tabling, organizers were pleased with their results.

"It was really nice to see how many different perspectives we got," said sophomore Anjali Patel, another house course instructor. "Everyone talks about how apathetic Duke students are, so it has been really nice to see people come out. It hasn't fallen on deaf ears."

The students are not yet sure what they will do with their footage and graffiti, but hope that something concrete will ultimately result from the project.

"We will see what we have in the end," Levin said. It could just be all PC comments. But we're hoping to possibly have it used for orientation or made available to different student groups."

Professor of Religion and co-director of the department's South Asia Center Bruce Lawrence, who serves as the faculty adviser for the house course, said he felt the project was right on target. He explained that when he was involved in the "Beyond the Comfort Zone: Race, Sex and God" project last fall, race was the most complicated topic to discuss.

"Beyond the house course, this particular drive will make [the issue] a lot more visible and a lot more understandable," Lawrence said. "It raises important issues, and to have students and not just faculty do it is great."

And so, armed with cameras, markers and cloth, these students set out to help people overcome prejudices by challenging preconceived misconceptions and forcing people to think twice before judging or making assumptions.

"An important part of this house course is how to make the community aware," Levin said. "We learn that everyone holds prejudices--it's just the way your mind works. We just want to make people talk about them instead of making it a back-burner issue."

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