Even in the furthest pew from the stage, an audible “mm” is heard from the crowd during Bobbie Kelsey-Grayson’s story of growing up Black in Savannah, Georgia. Sitting in a room with 200 other people of all colors and all ages, the feeling of compassion is almost tangible.
On Tuesday night, The Pres House on the University of Wisconsin hosted the second annual Race and Faith event. The theme “Seeing Color” attracted a large crowd ready to listen to five personal stories and two spoken word performances told by members of the UW community.
The storytelling model of this year’s event was designed to “allow you a glimpse into another human being and how they have experienced our world,” Pres House pastor Erica Liu said. “In these days when anxieties are high and suspicion of others seems to be growing, we come together tonight to remind each other of our common humanity.”
All of the stories were presented honestly and genuinely, providing personal perspectives on the cross-section of race and faith. Maria Ahmad and her story ‘Seeing Color’, explained the shift in white America and the attitudes towards Muslims after 9/11 while growing up in an intimate Muslim community in a small town in Ohio.
Jasmine Bhatia, another speaker with a story entitled ‘All of Me’, discussed her tribulations growing up mixed race, Punjabi and black, in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Bhatia’s childhood encompassed a wondrous blend of culture and food, but when her first Indian school teacher held a blind eye towards her peers’ ‘blacks are lazy’ comments, she realized the world wasn’t as integrated as she had imagined.
After the storytelling, listeners were invited to join each other for dinner and discuss their thoughts with strangers. There was a lot of importance placed on sitting with people that you don’t know because it allows for open and respectful conversation among different voices.
“I wish there was more discussion about faith and how that intersects with race,” said Jeung Bok Holmquist, a UW-Madison student who found the event through Facebook. “I related to [Ahmad] because my religious community growing up was also really small, and then I hit middle school. I had never talked about my religion in that space and every time I brought it up to people they kept calling it a cult and demonizing it.”
“I thought it was really striking how [Jasmine Bhatia] mentioned the anti-black comments made by her Indian teacher, which also came up during the first story when [Ahmad’s] mother was afraid of a black man,” said Nita Sharma, a recent UW-Madison graduate, “And those are comments I definitely hear in the South Asian community because of colorism and anti-blackness. That’s something we all just need to be more vocal about. People will talk about how white people are racist, but not be so quick to look internally and look within their own community.”
The Race and Faith event was sponsored by twenty-four religious groups at UW-Madison and three campus units. The storytelling model enabled a useful approach to the topics of race and faith and their integration inside of the UW campus and community. There are high expectations for next year’s Race and Faith event as it stays relevant to the conversation we should be having.
This piece was produced by a student reporter in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our educational programs, visit madison365.org/academy.