Helen Davis' Learning Story


One of the most educational experiences of my undergraduate years occurred during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I spent the summer working in the microbiology lab of a factory near my home to earn money for college. One of the microbiologists was an African American man. We had many candid discussions that summer about race, including his many experiences with discrimination. His willingness to share his experiences transformed the way I interact publicly. For example, he told me about how he feels when he is walking down the street and he hears people locking their car doors as if he’s a threat to them. I had never really thought about how my actions could be perceived by others. Now I’m much more aware of my social responsibility not just to avoid racist acts, but to consider whether my actions can be perceived as racist. Now that I am a college English professor, I attempt to share this awareness of social interaction with my students. I share my discussions with that co-worker, and pair it with the essay, “Just Walk on By: Black Men in Public Space” by Brent Staples. Many of my students are from predominantly Caucasian communities and have not thought about their own social responsibilities for communal interactions. In the reflective essay assignment that I give at the end of term every semester, I frequently find that students refer back to that reading assignment and discussion as transformative. It takes a great deal of courage to share personal experiences, but they can make racism real in a concrete way that can begin to open minds and encourage introspection. I wish that my coworker from years ago knew how much of an impact he had on my development and how his story continues to help me as I communicate the lessons he taught me to my students. I highly recommend “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space” as a conversation starter about social responsibility and interactions, and I encourage everyone to stop and think about how you interact with those around you. Racism isn’t just about intentional acts, it is often a manifestation of internalizations that may not even be conscious until you stop and think about them. Thanks, Mike.