MARSHALL - "Who comes to mind when you think of an American?" asked speaker Mahmoud El-Kati at the 2012 Disability and Racism Conference Thursday at Southwest Minnesota State University.
"Not me," El-Kati said. "It's a white man. It could be John Wayne, even though my ancestors were probably here longer."
El-Kati, professor emeritus of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, was one of four keynote speakers at the conference whose focus was on the "Inclusion of Diverse Communities: Conversations on Racism, Disabilities and Where We Are Today."
"Culture is not race or skin color," El-Kati said. "Culture comes from people. The mind does not take its complexion from the skin."
Racism still exists, El-Kati said, like it did many generations ago. But we're all connected, he said.
"Truth has no color," he said. "Right has no sex. It's about a struggle. If you're not willing to struggle and give up something, it isn't going to happen."
One commonality the speakers seemed to have is that one needs to know about history in order to understand it.
"It's not often that we have the chance to sit down and talk about disability and racism," said speaker Sedric McClure, who was a 1994 graduate of SMSU and is currently a multicultural counselor in the Academic Excellence Center at Macalester College. "It makes some of us uncomfortable, but we have to have these conversations. We cannot give in to our worst fears."
McClure joked about being "intellectually curious after retiring from his collegiate athletic career."
"I found that there's always two outcomes of getting a higher education," he said. "You either get a job and make a living for yourself, or you help make a life for others in this country and society."
Inaccurate stereotypes can also get in the way of truth. McClure said popular media often plays a role in that.
"There are two ways people see the black man," he said. "Either as an athlete or a criminal."
At SMSU, people often saw McClure as a basketball player, but he corrected them and said, "No, political science major."
McClure also pointed out that not all learning takes place in the classroom. He spoke of learning a good deal from a random conversation with a drunk stranger who had once been actively involved in the Civil Rights movement.
"He told me about my history and my humanity in ways I had never heard," McClure said. "As human beings, we share 99.8 percent of the same genetic makeup. There are many more things that unite us, probably more than divides us."
People are often products of their environment, he said.
"In fact, we know so little about each other," McClure said. "So we need to find those things that unite us."
Event organizers Ted Stamp, Independent Living Center advocate, Jefferson Lee, director of cultural diversity at SMSU, and Pam Ekstrom, director of disability resources at SMSU, felt the conference went well.
"I thought the turnout was good," Lee said. "We have several classes that showed up so that was really nice that the institution and the instructors were able to use this platform as a tool for their classes. I think if we're going to be putting on a program, like Sedric said, all learning doesn't happen in the classroom. I thought it was a success."
Lee hoped that attendees felt a level of comfort while discussing the difficult topics.
"I hope what they got out of it was maybe some tools or insight on how they can play a role in inclusion and diversity and disability and how services might be provided for those individuals," Lee said. "This was not about black and white. This was about inclusion. That meant women's issues, people with disabilities, people of color, all people. I hope that's what they got out of it, and that nobody walked away feeling uncomfortable."
Minnesota State Colleges and University representative Scott Going and Whitney Harris also spoke at the conference, which Stamp also believed went well.
"I think it's really good, for ideas, and for people to come and talk about it," Stamp said. "You always wonder, at a conference like this, what's going to be the tangible result. What's going to come of it. But if you present it to people to weigh and talk about and get it out in the air, then it's good."
While optimistic that things can improve, Stamp is also a realist.
"I'm always optimistic, but it's 2012 and the fact is, there's still racism," he said. "It's a deep subject, and everybody's perspective is different."
While it has been four years since the last Disabilities and Racism conference, organizers are hoping to make it an annual event.
"The topic never goes away," Stamp said.