‘Dasher dialogues' looks to change culture of language

MILWAUKEE - Some conversations can be difficult, so students at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School are engaging in a dialogue with their fellow students and faculty to tackle the issues of race and diversity in an increasingly divisive America. 

The forum is a part of their Dasher Dialogue series to increase awareness and education on the topic. Tuesday's discussion focused on two words that affect the African American community and also those with special needs; commonly referred to as the n-word and r-word. 

"I would not sit here and tell you a lie that I've never used that word before because I have," said Brian Calhoun with DSHA. 

Calhoun was referring the n-word. As an African American man, he said he's used the word in the past with his friends and singing song lyrics. However, he made a decision recently to remove it from his vocabulary.

"It's becoming normal speech and a habit but, no. Let's get back to the real reason and the meaning of it," Calhoun said. "It's important to have those uncomfortable conversations and work through it that way."

Calhoun spoke to the students about questions they had regarding the use of the n-word. However, the forum was student driven. 

"This is a good start to kind of exposing girls to the importance of these discussions just so that everyone in our school community is on the same page regarding language or economic backgrounds or anything of that sort that might affect other girls in our community," said Antonette Mastrogiovanni-Washington. 

Mastrogiovanni-Washington, an African American senior at DSHA, hopes Tuesday's discussion will help spark tough conversations at home about race and diversity. She said a big issue she's heard with the n-word is the black community using it. She stops her non-black friends whenever they say it, even in song. 

"Even if they don't mean it in an offensive or derogatory way, it's still important to address them and say, hey. Not cool. Don't say that," Mastrogiovanni-Washington said. "I get it. It's just in the song and you don't mean it in any offensive way but you still shouldn't say it regardless of it being in a song or not. That's just not something you should say."

For Mahogany Billups, an African American senior at the school, she has had conversations with white people who wonder why they can't say it even if they don't mean it in a derogatory sense. 

"It's kind of like with your siblings," Billups said. "You have a certain dialogue with siblings but if an outsider tries to have the same dialogue with the siblings, it's not the same. It's disrespectful in that sense. It's not your home, not your culture, not your foundation."

The conversation shifted from one word to the next seamlessly. Two girls with the Best Buddies program spoke on the r-word and its impact on folks with special needs. 

The program pairs DSHA students with intellectually and developmentally disabled students from the surrounding communities to create one-to-one friendships and have started a campaign called "spread the word to end the word" to promote discontinued use of the r-word. 

"Obviously, you know what's right and what's wrong," said Grace Koupp, a senior. "So just to have the courage to be able to say something is a great starting point too."

"These two things do go hand in hand," Billups said. "The r-word shows others that, you see how we can't use the r-word? Now, look at the n-word in the same context."

In addition to the discussion, students are also learning about Civil Rights issues to help learn more about the power of the words they use. The faculty hopes what they learn can be spread to their families and friends to help unite an increasingly divided country. 

"If we can do it here, you know a microcosm of the world or the city, maybe it will spread out into their families and into other people they know," said Chris Weiss with DSHA. "We can begin those conversations but it has to start here."
 

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