The participants are crowded into a makeshift corridor between barriers; it’s cramped, people are mashed together and the staff, dressed in black, shout at us to press uncomfortably close together. The information sheet given to us warns us this could be an upsetting experience and outlines the program’s emotionally impacting approach to education. This is the Tunnel of Oppression.
The door opens and our group is ushered into the dimly-lit space. The lights go out, everyone is silent save the two students next to me.
“I don’t know what to expect,” one said.
“Me either, my professor recommended we come but he said its emotionally destroying,” said the other.
The silence is broken by the buzz of TV static, lights flicker and suddenly we are bombarded with shouts. Horrible phrases, racist slurs, sexist remarks and worse bombard the group as we walk through a cramped corridor lined with graffiti echoing the slurs being hurled at us. We emerge from the corridor into a dimly lit room. The group is shaken, people appear somber, unsure and devoid of voice; there is no more talk.
“EVERYONE STAND WITHIN THE LINES, COME ON HURRY UP,” shout our guides.
The group bunches together uncomfortably close within the confines of the marked lines. A spotlight highlights a girl as she approaches a theatrical sized scale, she steps up to it and we witness her weight rise. Each increase in weight is accompanied by a derogatory term such as “disgusting” or “behemoth.”
Quietly at first, from within the group, come teases about weight, diet and exercise. The shouts escalate in volume and wickedness; the shouts are coming from people within the group and it takes a minute to register that actors have infiltrated us.
Tasked with the role of abusing the girl on the scale, they achieved the desired effect of creating discomfort, as though the group itself were belittling the girl on the scales. Shouts like “Go to the gym” and “You’re stupid, worthless and fat” are thrown at the girl until she reacts.
“Stop it,” she yells, rage and emotion playing across her face. “What gave you the right to dictate how I feel?”
She shouts, the emphasized words land on the group like punches to the gut.
“Disgusting, fat, obese, do you even realize what that’s like? You say those things, those horrible words and I look in the mirror and actually feel that way.”
Almost as a relief the lights dim and we are once again left little time to process as our guides heckle and yell at us to keep moving to the next room.
This room-to-room transfer goes on as we are moved through another four scenarios. Our conscience is battered and our emotions shaken further each time.
There is a game show acted out where transgender contestants spin a wheel in the hopes of a prize but are demoralized and humiliated in front of us, the audience, as their prizes turn out to be nothing more than a horrible statistic. One such prize of “no healthcare” informs us of the fact transgender people face a 41 percent increased likelihood of suicide.
There is a classroom scenario highlighting global education issues such as language requirements (Boise State is used as an example), socioeconomic status and the rights of women to be educated. Each example is accompanied by shocking displays of violence and more statistical evidence is used to drive home the fact that these issues are being largely ignored by the world.
The culmination of the tour is a military like briefing on the “War on Women.” A military instructor guides us through the stages.
“Men,” shouts the instructor. “We will systematically destroy (women) by breaking them down in the following stages: their minds, their hearts, their bodies and the uterus.”
We are shown powerful scenes of uterus sterilization and advertisements that degrade, humiliate and diminish females. Perhaps the most powerful scene is that of a man dressed as politician towering over a woman as he rants about delegitimizing rape and complains about tax dollars paying for contraception.
“Some girls just rape easy,” he said.
The lights dim again and group huddles together subconsciously. Shadowy figures crowd around as we are barraged with slurs, insults and demonizing phrases we recalled from earlier scenes. Reprieve comes when we are marched through the Student Union Building to a room with counselors and representatives from support organizations.
In it’s eighth year at Boise State, the Tunnel of Oppression highlights different issues each year. Designed and curated entirely by students, the program, which was developed first at University of Western Illinois, is now found in hundreds of colleges across America.
In coordination with groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and Transform Idaho the message is made clear that simply knowing about oppression is not enough. Every individual must do something if oppression is to be abolished from today’s world.
The scenes portrayed are extremely effective in immersing the participants in very difficult and confronting situations, causing those who are witness to become aware in the ways they may unknowingly perpetrate oppression in their own lives.
The Tunnel of Oppression ends with a debrief session led by counselors in which participants recount their emotions and responses to what they have just witnessed. Identifying with many of the themes presented was a common response by women in the group.