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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

Conference deconstructs labels

By Sagirah Shahid
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 21, 2008

While most St. Olaf students were just getting out of bed Saturday morning, a group of students and faculty decided to make their morning a bit more meaningful by attending the Harambee conference in Trollhaugen.

With the provocative title "Apply Label Here," the conference addressed an issue that almost all students can relate to: labeling. "We came up with labeling this year because it affects everyone regardless of your background," said Daniel Plunkett '10, current President of the Harambee organization on campus and an organizer of the conference.

Harambee, named for a Swahili word that means "working together in unit," is an umbrella group for the multicultural student organizations at St. Olaf.

True to its name, Harambee strives to bring all of these multicultural groups together on the political, cultural and social issues on campus and in society at large.

An annual conference has been organized and put on by Harambee for nearly 20 years.

Although the theme of the conference has differed each year, the primary goal of the conference continues to remain the same. "The conference is a forum for relevant social issues on campus and society that need to be addressed," Plunkett said.

Labeling or stereotyping people based upon gender, race, culture, body type or even economic standing was one of the issues addressed at the conference. "It was an opportunity to gain an intellectual perspective of stereotypes and how we apply them to ourselves and others," said Wade Hauser '09, who attended the conference.

The "Apply Label Here" conference consisted of a day filled with interactive activities and workshop sessions lead by both student leaders and St. Olaf professors.

Professor of education Dan Forstner led a workshop that discussed labeling by discussing biases. Forstner raised the point that many people carry around "unconscious biases" against people who differ from themselves. He also pointed out that we all have biases to some degree but that we have to work to overcome them.

The conference also included keynote speaker Charles Huff, professor of psychology. He spoke briefly to students about the ways in which labeling can be used as a war tactic to "morally distance ourselves" from the enemy so that we can justify "doing wrong."

Huff showed several very provocative slides in which different countries used advertisements that "dehumanized" their enemies by making them look ugly and animalistic.

Students were impressed by Huff's presentation. "I really liked the keynote speaker. I never thought of labeling on that high of a scale," conference participant Xong Yang '10 said.

Although Huff addressed the negative aspects of labeling in his keynote address, he also pointed out that some of the more positive aspects of labeling.

He informed students that because we all use labels to identify and describe ourselves, we cannot completely abandon them.

However, rather then letting others determine our labels for ourselves, Huff recommended that students become their "own architects" and choose the labels that best suit them.

Many students recognized the necessity of having some labels.

"Each of us are really different and labels can sometimes be good because they recognize our diversity" said Mia Philip '10, another organizer of the Harambee conference.

"This conference was a chance to check the personal biases and prejudices we all have, and to be able to change or improve them," Goeun Kim '09 said.

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