Students spend time learning from people who aren’t like them
April 16, 2015 | By MICHAEL NEWSOM
A University of Mississippi class explores the significance of “race, place and space” to modern identity formation by having students place themselves in the shoes of people who aren’t like them.
Barbara Combs, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology and Southern Studies, teaches the class, which is cross listed through the departments of sociology, African-American Studies, gender studies, and Southern Studies. Its foundation is a multidisciplinary exploration of the influence of social, political, cultural and historical factors on the development of real and perceived “racialized places and spaces,” identities, and experiences in America. The class of about 25 students places a special emphasis on gender and the South.
“I’m interested in how those variables of ‘race, place and space’ work together to encourage community or discourage community, or promote change or take away from change,” Combs said.
This semester marks the fifth time Combs has caught the class. She encourages her students to take time to learn from people who are part of groups they don’t fit into as part of an assignment called “public spaces, private faces.” They observe persons in that group, and then they interject themselves into that situation.
A female student who saw herself as thin, and had been teased about it, wanted to understand how overweight people are treated. She made a “fat suit” and walked around campus wearing it. She visited the Turner Center and was surprised at how differently she was treated and also surprised about how quickly her self confidence vanished.
“As she tried to cross the street, no cars would stop to let her by,” Combs said. “She had never had that experience before. Normally, she would just walk out (without looking) and cars would stop. When she went into the building, she wanted to take the elevator, but she feared people would talk about her for taking the elevator, so she took the stairs, and with each step she wondered what those behind her were saying about the girth of her behind.”
A young black man decided to attend a predominantly white local church. He was welcomed at first, but the next week returned with a friend and they presented themselves as a homosexual couple. The pastor greeted them at the church steps and told them “God bless you” but said they were not welcome there. Because of the experience the week before, it was clear the treatment was because they were perceived as homosexual.
A black female student went to a local spa wearing a hijab head covering commonly worn by Muslim women. She was asked to leave because she was making the other customers, who were all white, uncomfortable. She was told she could come back after hours and receive a 75 percent discount.
Another student observed handicapped persons, then spent the day in an electric wheelchair at Walmart to see what that experience is like. The student, who has an outgoing personality, encountered people who looked away or were overly helpful because of his disability. Both attitudes were off putting to the student, Combs said. He joked with some of them that his disability wasn’t contagious.
“All students have the experience of being bothered or treated badly because of something that’s not in their control,” Combs said. “I encourage students to harness that feeling and use it to understand the oppression faced by others in society. If a sense of learning and community doesn’t happen in their larger classes, this class always kind of redeems it.”
Latisha Baker, a senior psychology major from Bay Springs, said the class is both “enlightening and alarming” because it teaches about stigmas, perspectives, social norms and self identity and it has made her more conscious of her own perspectives.
“Being able to have a class built around race, place, and space creates a platform for students to not only learn, but to be to able to learn from others through their personal experiences with the subjects,” Baker said. “With all these things in mind, I can say that the class teaches how to understand others, shows you how to see from various standpoints and to recognize that the understanding of race, place, space play a pivotal role in our lives.”
Juliana Headings, a senior sociology major from Tupelo, said the class has been one of her favorites at UM.
“There’s a diverse group in the class and this is a testament to just how diverse and essential the knowledge of space and place is to understanding our world and interactions with those in it,” Headings said. “I am so thrilled and feel privileged to be able to be in Dr. Combs’ class. It has influenced me and my ideas for future studies so much that I am brimming with excitement about graduate school thesis opportunities.”