For no money at all, University students can have derogatory terms yelled at them mere inches from their face, threatened to be strip-searched and witness a hate crime. This is all part of the learning process of Boxes and Walls, a program that creates a simulated environment where University students are placed in situations such as these and others that discriminated members of society face on a day-to-day basis.
“Boxes and Walls is about learning through experience. Instead of reading statistics, they can experience and understand what it is to be discriminated against,” said LSA junior and co-chair of Boxes and Walls Rachel Lederman.
The program is structured in two parts. First, a tour leader guides about 10 participants through a “museum” in the Duderstadt Center. This “museum” is comprised of seven interactive exhibits in which student actors create realistic situations that simulate stereotypes and racial injustices. The actors try to engage the members of the tour group to participate by treating them as if they were part of a certain minority group.
Afterward, the group is led to a “processing room” where they can share their responses to the experience.
Some of these exhibits applied specifically to situations familiar to University students, such as instances when students are turned away from student groups recruiting only certain ethnicities or religions.
In another exhibit, actors berated the tour group with insults regarding their sexual orientation in a scene that was meant to take place on the streets of Ann Arbor late at night. Two of the actors individually approached members of the group and asked them questions such as, “Why are you like this? Don’t your parents hate you?” The verbal assaults eventually escalated into a pushing match with another actor, when the instigators pulled out bats. Before anyone could intervene, the lights went out.
The comments from the actors would sometimes become personal. While playing a prospective employer, one actor told LSA junior Edna Buckle that she would not get the job because of her braids.
Even though she was initially offended, Buckle understood why the actors targeted her.
“I was pissed off, but it got me thinking,” she said.
However, other exhibits focused on broader problems, such as profiling of Arab-Americans in airports. LSA sophomore Stephen Lin and LSA junior Ben Rattner played airport security agents forcing the tour group to assemble into two lines. Lin and Rattner each took turns accusing the participants of engaging in terrorist activities and calling them by racial slurs. Rattner even took a bag of popcorn that was supposedly in somebody’s bag and asked the person if it was an explosive.
As each simulation elicits different verbal reactions from every group, the actors must continually change their performance.
“There is a script of things that you want to get across. When people react and get in your face, is when you have to improvise,” Rattner said.
Students participating in the event were affected by these enactments.
“Since (gay hate-crime victim) Matthew Shephard, the scene with the hate crime affected me the most,” said LSA senior Sydney Zhou. “Things such as that happen all the time. It is a reality check that we live in such a liberal town.”
LSA junior Edna Buckle could identify most with the racial profiling section, as she has undergone similar experiences not being from the United States. “Every time I used to travel, I would be pulled over. Even once, my mother had her bag looked through and her undergarments examined,” she said.
“I think it was a good experience, but you’re left with the question, ‘There are people like that, but what can I do about it?’ ” Buckle added.
Boxes and Walls will continue until next Thursday. Since specific times vary by the day, students can check the website at http://www.umich.edu/~umboxes for a schedule.