Student leaders illustrate ‘Differences’ in prize-winning slam poem

Michael Wallace and Doretha Benn

JOHNSON CITY (June 2, 2015) – One is black, one is white.  One is female, one is male.  One is uncomfortable browsing through stores, the other is completely comfortable shopping.

While two of East Tennessee State University’s student leaders share a number of similarities, they’ve used their “Differences” to illustrate a topic they say “nobody seems to want to talk about – race.”

Doretha Benn and Michael Wallace penned their slam poem by that title during the spring 2015 semester for a speech assignment in the “Speaking for Social Change” course in the Department of Communication and Performance.  After garnering positive reviews when they first delivered the speech at Willow Tree Coffeehouse in downtown Johnson City, the two revised and polished their work and decided to enter it in the Civility Week Creative Showcase in April.  They took first place.

“Michael and I wrote this piece of slam poetry because we walked two similar paths at East Tennessee State University, but were treated two completely different ways,” said Benn, who is African American and who served as ETSU’s Student Government Association president during the 2014-15 academic year, succeeding Wallace, who is white and held the same post in 2013-14.  “We know it is time to take a stand and let people know that it is not okay, will never be okay, and has never been okay to judge based on skin color.”

“Doretha and I are great friends who have shared many things in common – a student body presidency, members of Greek life, interns for the Division of Student Affairs, so on and so forth,” said Wallace, who became an advocate for racial equality after spending the fall 2014 semester studying in South Africa.  “However, we are seen in two completely different lights.  And it is okay to be different – that’s what makes diversity so amazing.  But to be judged for those differences without consent and consideration is inhumane, and we wanted to challenge people to think about the ways we inherently make assumptions of race as a society.”

Benn explained that when she and Wallace first started working on the poem, they intended to highlight their similarities, but found they weren’t achieving the effect they desired.

“At first, we tried to sugar-coat the issue of race and how big a role it plays in everyday life,” she said.  “We would tiptoe around the issue and try to make our poem comfortable for everyone, but it never felt right.  It felt like we weren’t being truthful and we weren’t being real.  It felt as though we were afraid to say what we really felt, how this affected us, and how ridiculous it is that this is still an issue.”

They decided instead to “tackle it head-on” and focus on their differences.  The result, they realized, might make some folks squirm a bit.

“It is uncomfortable to not get a certain job because of your race,” Benn said.  “It is uncomfortable to get stared at because of your race.  It is uncomfortable to get followed in a store because of your race.  It is uncomfortable to be a minority in America.  So if this piece of slam poetry makes people uncomfortable, so be it.  We hope to shed some light on the issue of race and stereotypes in America.”

A video in which Benn and Wallace recite their poem, “Differences,” is available online at https://vimeo.com/127084524.

Benn, a native of Knoxville, is a junior majoring in communication studies at ETSU.  Wallace, from Cookeville, graduated May 9 with a degree in communication studies and will enter Clemson University this fall to pursue a master’s degree in student affairs.

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