IN TENTS: Tents of Truth debunks the myths behind discrimination

Haley Daniels, Staff Writer/Ad Manager

Mesa College hosted a disturbing, yet eye-opening event Tents of Truth for the sixth year on April 14 and 15, featuring five tents that demonstrated what some people consider a reality on a daily basis.

Before entering the tents, participants signed mandatory waivers and filled out pre-event surveys. Students were told here that if any of the simulations were too intense or graphic, they could leave the tent and go directly to Tent Five for counseling.

The first tent was the Classroom Experience, in which students briefly experienced what it would feel like to be an ESL (English Second Language) and a gay student. For the first half, an Arabic woman was teaching how to do simple math in Arabic. Not only does the Arabic alphabet look completely different than the English alphabet, it contains 28 letters and is read from right to left. After a brief lecture, she passed out a quiz to many puzzled and confused students. Some attempted to come up with some answers, while others just completely gave up right off the bat. After the quizzes were passed back to her, she gave a brief background on her story. She explained that she, herself, was just learning English and attending courses at Mesa. This was only a brief simulation for some, but for her, this was life.

Afterwards, students were introduced to a hypothetical world where 90 percent of the population was gay, and heterosexuals only made up the remaining 10 percent.  Males and females were separated from each other and were told that their straight behavior was hopefully a passing phase. The pseudo straight counselor went on to say things such as, “Perhaps you just need a gay lover,” and “It’s normal to experiment, but it’s gone too far.” After a period of nervous laughs and uncomfortable pauses, the instructor and head coordinator of the event, Sue Schrader Hanes, continued and explained that Straight Questionnaires actually exist. Homosexuality, she explained, was considered a psychiatric disorder until roughly 10 years ago.

The point of Tent Two was to show what it is like to be an illegal Mexican immigrant. Groups of six were given factual background on immigrants and common myths were debunked by a knowledgeable volunteer student. After the informational introduction, groups were led through a pitch black room on their hands and knees by a pretend “coyote,” a term that refers to a leader who assists people illegally crossing a border. In this orchestrated experience, groups are caught by border patrol agents, causing the coyote to suddenly flee. The volunteers held flashlights in the students’ faces demanding them to lie on the ground and not move. Anyone that talked or laughed was told to, “Shut the f*** up!” Once students were allowed to get up off the floor, the men were lined up against the wall, while the women were ordered to kneel in a specific area of the room.  The men continued to be yelled and cursed at, while the women had one of the male volunteers creepily whisper things in their ears that suggested things were leading to rape and abuse.  After about five minutes, this particular volunteer broke character and said how he was a student and asked others what their majors were. When told that this event was being covered for the Mesa Press he replied, “You probably shouldn’t put this part in the paper.”

Once time was up for Tent Two, students were ordered to crawl under a desk that led to another room. This room was the location for Tent Three. The room was silent and cascaded an aura of eeriness and somberness. Lined up on three different sides of the room were gruesome photographs of death and torture. These photos covered everything from slave lynching, burnings and murders to more recent Muslim torture. One picture that stood out was the burning of a slave. In the background was a crowd of white men standing around his desecrated corpse, smiling and holding their thumbs up. The violence of Tent Two was shocking and startling, yet students were aware that this was a fake reality. Tent Three, on the other hand, showed the horrible fates of real people, causing students to recognize that for some, life actually does resemble what is seen on the inside of these tents. After that, no one was laughing.

After students took in the photos at their own pace, they walked outside and down the stairs to the faculty parking lot behind the G-Building. Waiting here was a yellow school bus with a video of retired Black Studies Chair and Professor Starla Lewis. She narrated a scenario of what it was like for the first black children to attend non-segregated elementary schools. She described white adults lining up outside of the bus throwing rocks at the windows and yelling demeaning insults. She also described the fear that these young children endured. If you looked up at the sides of the bus, it was lined with black and white photographs of children, both black and white, during those times. Some of the pictures showed white children holding up awful signs with smiles on their faces.

Even though the sun was shining, nobody was in a joyous mood. As the group walked to Tent Five, they joined a circle of people asking and answering questions. Tent Five was the Tent of Peace, Tolerance and Civility. Most students were silent and processing what they had just seen. One outspoken student stated, “I think I learned more from other people’s reactions than I learned myself.”

After the event was over, a Mesa student named Ngoc Lo said that Tent Two was the most intense for her.

“I was born in, you know, 1995 and it’s like I’ve never had that experience before with discrimination,” she recounted. “I wouldn’t want to live in that situation or in that life.”

One of the coordinators, Suzanne Khambata, said the goal of the tents were to “…dissolve the cognitive dissonance between white privilege and your racist beliefs and myths. So that means, ‘I don’t think I’m a racist because nothing ever happened to me. I don’t know what those people are talking about.’ And white privilege says, ‘the world is fine, everything’s good.’’’

She countered this popular belief by saying, “Racism — though not outright…bam in your face anymore — is there, and it is strong, and it kind of flows right under that current.”

She suggests passing on awareness of discrimination by bringing others to the Tents of Truth, googling the meaning of white privilege or watching a YouTube movie called, “The Angry Eye.”

When asked if she thinks the world will ever be free of discrimination, she replied:

“You know, gosh, Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream,’ right? I’m going to go with that. You know? I’m just going to say, you know what? I’m an optimist, and I’m not African American. I’m white, you know? I’m half Asian, half white, and I don’t know. I just know Martin Luther King is right. If I have it in my integrity…my thinking…and my everyday behavior, and I’m altruistic and critical of myself, and I see things in myself that aren’t matching up quite right, I take the time and listen to others that have less.”