Racism and America
Earlier this year, I participated in an event called “Let’s Talk: Improving Racial and Cultural Relationships” at the Universalist Unitarian Church. The event consisted of two large group 4-hour workshops and 2-3 small group discussions around Ta-Nehesi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.”
In the initial workshop there were over 100 participants, with about 15 percent people of color. Our facilitators were Sherry, a black woman, and Matt, a white man. The facilitators’ expectations for the group in the workshops were: to stay engaged; to speak your truth; to allow yourself to be uncomfortable; to expect and accept non-closure; to listen for understanding.
The first hour was spent defining the three components of racial understanding, that according to Matt and Sherry were: being aware of your own culture and heritage; recognizing your own values and biases; being knowledgeable of different cultures; having the ability to send and receive verbal and non-verbal messages accurately and appropriately. We also spent some time defining and debunking the definition of words and terms. Two of the critical terms for me were white privilege and white supremacy.
Many of the individuals in the room thought the term white privilege meant that one was born with a silver spoon. As the facilitators explained, white privilege is the difference between rights everyone should have versus rights one segment of society has because of oppression of other groups in the society.
White supremacy was defined in both the overt and covert form. The overt socially unacceptable form of white supremacy was experienced during the Jim Crow Era with the birth of the KKK, lynching of black men and women and the use of the N-word; as well as today’s covert and socially accepted form, with the mass incarceration of brown and black
people, racial profiling, victim blaming, and the use of the new N-word Thug.
The small group discussions I co-facilitated were quite interesting. Looking at some of Coates critical points in his book was necessary. The first point and most critical one for me was everyone understanding, that there is no way to be innocent or not complicit in systemic racism. Another point Coates makes is for racism to be eradicated it requires white people to cede power and dominance. The third point is for white people to be honest in addressing that the problems in Black America has its roots and cause in white supremacy.
In the final 4-hour workshop the participation dropped by 50 percent. It was evidence that bringing people of different cultures together to talk about race for a sustained period is hard. It is uncomfortable, it requires being intentional, being honest and being willing to change. Racism is one of those things that is often not something that a person does consciously or with malice in my opinion. Often it is indifference. Just last month the art community of Peoria hosted a citywide celebration of Women in the Arts. Not one African-American woman was represented.
Wouldn’t you think at least one of the organizers would have looked around the room and wondered why?
As a black woman, I’m here to say, we are here. To ignore or not to acknowledge the wealth of talent, ability and strength we offer as a people is to the peril of our community, country and the world.