Perception is key

Beth Rankin

In the few weeks since the Black United Students meeting I attended, I have had a lot of time to think about the issue of prejudice on this campus. OK, it’s the end of the semester, so maybe I haven’t a ton of time to think, but I find microeconomics class is a good time to let my mind wander.

After the meeting, when beat class reporters and local media asked to interview me about the meeting, I found myself repeating the same pre-fabricated phrase:

“I think we started a really great dialogue.”

When the phone calls and e-mails finally tapered off, I had a chance to really think about that night and the person it made me. In the days around that meeting – both before and after – it occurred to me that my column had stirred a bit of attention. Calls from broadcast television stations, handshakes (or glares) from strangers, even people approaching me at the bar – I had created a little buzz around myself that caused me to rethink my moves.

I dressed more carefully (“Do these pants make me look racist?”), showered more than once a week (Mother would be proud), and even cut back on the obscenities (OK . tried to cut back).

Maybe it was a sense of responsibility to the people who supported me, or the greater sense of responsibility I felt to those who didn’t. Maybe it was my brief background studying public relations that ended abruptly when Apple Computers fired me for “asking too many questions.” Or maybe it was the fact that no girl likes to look like a surly, unshaven Yeti on the 6 o’clock news.

But one fact is undeniable: I changed my words, my actions and my mannerisms because I knew what I said and did in those moments could permanently alter the way people perceived me and my goals.

Like Adam Smithberger, director of communication for Undergraduate Student Government, said at BUS’s March 26 meeting, that column, this issue, this dialog is all about perception.

Or, rather, it was supposed to be.

When Sasha Parker asked those in attendance at that meeting to raise their hands if they had ever been unwelcome by BUS, around a dozen hands shot up. That was the first – and last – time that issue (the issue my ‘white bitch’ column was about) was addressed by BUS.

It is easier for people to think of my column as an attack than to see it as a serious social problem being voiced. I knew that if I came to BUS’s executive board and said, “I think BUS is perceived negatively by many on this campus,” it might have ended there. But after my column ran in the Stater, numerous voices came forward and said either similar things had happened to them or that they, too, perceived BUS negatively.

I thought if BUS could see it wasn’t just me, they would see that maybe their perception on this campus could use some work, mostly because of decisions made by people that came before them. Then they could discuss within their ranks a way to reach out, to open up, to let people know the real BUS, the BUS that exists outside of mission statements and rhetoric.

On this campus, perception is very important.

Just ask Lester Lefton. He takes perception so seriously that, even though Kent State has its own in-house, paid-for marketing team at his beck and call, he went out this week and spent university money to hire Sweeney, a Rocky River-based PR firm.

Or ask the gentlemen of Delta Upsilon. Last week, these gentlemen decided to sit outside their house on Lincoln Street and share their perceptions of the women who passed by holding up giant numbers rating the attractiveness of women walking down the street.

Delta Upsilon must have felt that how they perceived women walking around in public was important. Important enough to further the perception that they are a group of disgusting, disrespectful, chauvinist neanderthals.

Perception is important, because, in many cases, that’s all the information anyone has about you: how they see you, not how you really are.

In a guest column that ran Monday, BUS’s executive board said, “The mistake that many ‘liberal’ whites make is thinking they are doing minorities a favor by stepping in and offering their help.”

That statement, whether it is intended to or not, can be (and has been) perceived as a statement declaring that whites and their help aren’t welcome in BUS.

At the end of the day, perception is what we make it. We can choose to make assumptions on people based on their skin color, or we can accept the fact that skin color is a physical trait and not a personality trait. The choice is yours.

Race problems on this campus will not go away if we continue to segregate ourselves and pick and choose our allies based on race and ethnicity.

I choose not to base my perceptions about people upon things – race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, disability – that they cannot control.

And until you make that same choice, you’re only adding to the problem.

Beth Rankin is a senior photojournalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at