UNT fifth annual Human Library allows students to be read as ‘books’ open about identites
North Texas students and faculty assembled on April 6 in Willis Library to take part in the campus’s fifth annual Human Library event, an annual event designed to “challenge stereotypes and prejudices in the community through an open forum where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated.”
Between the hours of 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., a revolving cast of campus workers and students sat in small circles scattered around the Library Forum. Each person had a tag on the back of their chair, reading everything from eating disorder, Judaism, cerebral palsy and more. These tags revealed some part of their identity that is often stigmatized or misunderstood. You, the “reader,” are invited to sit down and “check out the book.”
Journalism student Victoria Chavez engaged with participants about her experiences in her book, “Anxiety Disorder.” Her book began when she was 16 after a hormonal reaction to a certain brand of birth control.
“I had a six-month period while taking it where I had borderline hallucinating episodes,” she said.
That’s when she began getting anxiety attacks.
“The first anxiety attack you have is basically how you’re going to react every time you have one,” Chavez said.
After she stopped taking the medication, the hallucinations eventually ceased, however, she was still left with the anxiety attacks.
“Now, whenever I have anxiety attacks, I can’t move, I can’t talk,” Chavez said. “It basically lasts for about an hour.”
It took seeing a therapist for her to understand that hallucinations like these were more common than many accept.
Regardless, she had a hard time letting people in to help her.
“For the longest time, I didn’t tell people because people would think I was crazy,” Chavez said.
Chavez relates incidents where anxiety attacks have been debilitating, and the inconsistency with which they occur is often destabilizing. While she hasn’t found a medication that’s allowed her to function enough to maintain her current standard of living, she has found success in learning how to manage and anticipate them.
Now, she hopes to remove some of the stigma that kept her afraid of getting the help she needed.
Other books in the library had a much different story to tell.
“Ask me how I identify in a way that doesn’t sound like a threat,” Library staff member Deborah Caldwell said.
Caldwell recommends the statement as a starter topic. Her book is titled “Multiracial.” After her white American father and Korean mother emigrated to rural Louisiana in 1986 when she was 4 years old, the question would come to carry hidden meanings.
“So many times, over the course of my life, people managed to put it in such a way,” Caldwell said. “It’s ‘do you belong here?’ It’s ‘prove your authenticity.’ ‘What slur should I lose for you?’”
Caldwell relates stories of both casual and malicious racism encountered during her self-identified “Norman Rockwell” childhood.
Moving from Seoul’s population of 11 million to a village of 600 felt to her like traveling back a couple of decades.
“I never had another Asian [person] in my class until I went to high school,” Caldwell said.
She is old enough to remember resenting the 2000 U.S. Census, the first which provided survey options for multiracial Americans. Up to that point, every standardized test carried with it the angst of having to fit her identity into a box that couldn’t contain it.
It is in that liminal space where she finds her own unique immigrant story instructive, both at The Human Library and in her role directing a youth group for Korean girls.
And like Caldwell, Office of Spiritual Life worker Elijah Cumpton hopes to provide hope for people, as well.
“There’s that burden of being a representative minority,” Cumpton said. “If you’re out and identified as a trans person and you make the choice to respond violently, guess what, here’s the next headline.”
Cumpton’s book is titled “Trans Christian,” and he spoke of how he applies his understanding of his Methodist faith to his identity in a too-often invisible and politicized group.
Despite this burden, Cumpton feels like we have to extend grace to sometimes hostile parties because fear and anxiety around gender come from “a deep place that’s absolutely human.”
He is drawn to what he calls “social justice gospel,” and mentions Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker’s Movement freely. Cumpton relates anecdotes where he’s had to display extraordinary grace and humor in what would otherwise be banal interactions because trans people are tossed into a “subhuman” category. As are some of the other open “books” that made this year’s Human Library a collection of unique, inspiring tales.
“Just treating people as human and making people see you as human because no one really wants to hurt another human being,” Cumpton said. “We just do that thing where we imagine people aren’t.”
Featured Image: At the Human Library event at Willis on Thursday, April 6, Officer Kevin Crawford (center) shares his story about his line of work. Officer Crawford was one of the many “human books” at the event, each one telling stories about their lives. Courtesy | Jeffrey Merrill
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