On Aug. 25, University Housing celebrated the start of the academic year with its annual housing kickoff at Rackham auditorium. For the first time, student staff — including me as a resident advisor — were also invited to attend. So it’s unsurprising that everyone would want to start the year off with an impressive bang.
And so it was that Dr. Bertice Berry, a well-known sociologist, author and motivational speaker who has appeared on “Oprah” and “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, was invited to deliver the keynote address. “No one defies stereotypes, generalizations or clichés more than Dr. Bertice Berry,” read the day’s program, a phrase that’s repeated on Berry’s website. The program then concluded with a big promise: “One thing’s for certain, you will leave different than when you came.”
Berry was supposed to “redefine diversity;” humor, according to the kickoff program, would help the audience come together to understand why diversity benefits every individual. This, along with the two former promises that she would move beyond stereotypes and change our perspectives, makes three promises that Berry failed to keep.
Ironically, it was Berry’s humor that got her into the most trouble. She digressed, for example, about visiting Korea, and acted out how every Korean bows down and speaks in a whisper. Then, all of a sudden, Berry became rambunctious and loud, because she had moved to recount landing in Atlanta, where apparently everyone behaves that way. Almost without fail, Berry laughed theatrically at her own jokes, as if her laughing made it acceptable to guffaw at anything she said. Sadly, it worked.
After an hour of talking the good talk about diversity, infusing the routine with often stereotype-based jokes and awkwardly breaking into song three times, Berry had the grace to take time out of her busy schedule — she reminded everyone several times about how she had a flight to catch — to answer some questions from the audience. That’s when a housing employee walked up to the microphone.
Before he could start, Berry mused, “Are you a man or a woman? I can’t tell!” The questioner, Berry had noticed, had fairly long hair. Somewhat taken aback, he nevertheless proceeded to ask his question. After Berry replied with an answer, he mentioned that he had a follow-up inquiry. “You know you’re ghetto if you ask a follow-up question,” Berry laughed. I am sure it was a pure coincidence that the man with the follow-up question was black.
It may come as a surprise to Berry, but I, a middle-class white Italian immigrant from the well-off Detroit suburbs, also ask follow-up questions. I also doubt that everyone in Korea whispers and bows and that everyone in Atlanta is sassy and loud. But then again, perhaps I shouldn’t disagree because, as Dr. Berry emphasized, she is a scholar with a Ph.D. I, on the other hand, am only an undergraduate student.
And yet, for all her supposed academic claims to fame, Berry’s work has only been cited a handful of times by fellow academics, as a cursory search on Google Scholar will reveal. It seems that fellow sociologists have some reservations regarding Berry’s message. Perhaps it’s because it borders more so on motivational speaking than sociological research. Perhaps it’s because it’s full of the very stereotypes and generalizations Berry states she’s trying to overcome. Either way, it seems I’m not the only one who takes issue with some aspects of Berry’s message.
Laughter is a powerful thing — it’s one of the most effective forms of peer pressure. If half of the auditorium is laughing, you feel compelled to laugh too. Berry would do well to remember this point when she considers the effectiveness of her humor. I, as an audience member that day, invite my peers to reassess Berry’s speech. If we believe that stereotyping is no laughing matter, as our training as Housing employees emphasizes, then our thinking shouldn’t change just because a charismatic “diversity expert” likes to laugh at her own jokes.
To her credit, Berry did provide us with mind-blowing insights regarding our roles as Housing employees. When asked by an audience member about how resident advisors can help build inclusive communities, Berry was uncharacteristically silent. “Keep your door open,” she finally responded. Brilliant — absolutely brilliant.
Tommaso Pavone can be reached at email@example.com.