Arizona State University senior Ryan Visconti was told “his kind” wasn’t welcome — that he was an abomination and an unforgiveable sinner. He pleaded to join the “church,” which was set up Jan. 10 as part of diversity training for ASU dormitory employees.
The role-play training took place Jan. 11, one week before the start of the spring semester.
Assigned the identity of a gay Hispanic, Visconti’s persistence during the training got him nowhere. A woman with a Southern accent told him there was nothing he could do. She said he was going to hell, and that even Jesus said so in the Bible.
Visconti, a 22-year-old political science major from Mesa, called the role-play an “ultra-clear example” of the victim mentality and liberal bias that permeate ASU.
“It crossed the line,” Visconti said. “All it did was reinforce the most disgusting, hateful and ugly stereotypes in our society.”
Visconti said he was required to participate in the role-play for his job as a resident assistant. It was an activity that Visconti, other dorm employees and a Valley religious leader said went too far.
Even an ASU associate professor who specializes in minority relations has raised concerns about the activity.
ASU Residential Life spokeswoman Diana Medina said the role-play was designed to examine the effects of racism, classism and “homophobia” on different cultural and economic groups.
But Visconti said the students who designed the roleplay overlooked their own stereotypes, such as the notion that white men don’t have to work for wealth because society gives them a free ride. Or the idea that Christian churches are filled with bigots, and people who support traditional family values such as heterosexual marriage are hateful and narrow-minded.
“They were basically saying that if you don’t feel the same way, you’re wrong,” Visconti said. “It got to the point that if you weren’t a minority or gay, you were supposed to feel guilty and that everything was given to you in life.”
To start the role-play, participants were handed coded index cards that indicated their race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Participants were then told to visit different “life stations” and create their “perfect life.”
The stations included booths for housing, banking, church, jail, transportation and employment.
At each stop, Visconti said he was given scripted responses based on his gay Hispanic identity. He was told he could be a landscaper and live in a ghetto apartment or be unemployed and homeless. Meanwhile, students assigned white identities were encouraged to be business executives.
According to Visconti, the exercise didn’t focus on any of the positive aspects of diversity.
That’s something Madelaine Adelman, an ASU associate professor who specializes in minority relations, said can be dangerous.
“Exercises like these can be powerful tools,” she said. “But if implemented incorrectly, they can have a harmful effect.”
She said the Residential Life exercise needed to focus more on understanding and collaboration.
“It’s good they are incorporating this training,” Adelman said. “But exercises like this can’t just focus on the negative. They need to highlight the differences and advantages too. It all needs to be part of a longer process. If it’s not constructed carefully, it exacerbates the problem.”
According to Medina, the ASU exercise was modeled after those at national leadership conferences. She said ASU students designed the exercise, which was approved by Residential Life staff as a way to increase awareness and sensitivity.
But Visconti said the roleplay was based too much on extreme situations that were too unrealistic to relate to real situations.
He said the narrow portrayal of the church bothered him the most.
“I am Christian,” he said. “And I don’t think like that.”
Paul Eppinger, executive director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, a nonprofit organization that focuses on building cooperation among religious groups, said the ASU activity made unfair assumptions about the way a church would respond to a gay Christian.
“There are some churches out there who might act that way,” Eppinger said. “But many are very open, accepting and welcoming of homosexual men and women.”
Eppinger said he agrees with diversity training as a tool to bridge differences — as long as the role-playing is set up in a fair manner.
“Without proper forethought,” he said, “it will cause people to get the wrong ideas.”