Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical

[SCOR] "Persevering Up Heartbreak Hill" [2009-04-30]

"Persevering Up Heartbreak Hill: A Panel to Address Racism and White Privilege in the Communities and Congregations of Somerville and Beyond"

The title irritated me because Heartbreak Hill is not exactly Somerville.  (I never claimed to not be pedantic.)

There was a good number of turnout, though I was a bit bummed that I didn't recognize anyone besides folks from FCS UCC (which was hosting the event), since the notice had gone out to at least two of my other churches.

I was hoping for more discussion of "actionable" strategies for fighting racism.  The panelists opened by sharing their own stories of racism -- largely with a framing of how they came to an awareness of and an active engagement with racism -- which, yes, stories are important (Laura Ruth and others framed it as "telling their truths"), but...

Early on, one of the panelists said that she wasn't going to talk at great length explaining white privilege and everything since clearly we already know that stuff or else we wouldn't be here.  I don't actually think that everyone present has done "Racism and White Privilege 101" or anything (honestly, I'm still working my way through Racism and White Privilege 101), and certainly plenty of people were present (like, for example, me) who had been to little if any of the preceding portions of the Sacred Conversations on Race series.

It was also weird to hear Anthony Holloway frequently talking about experiences of racism as if they were these rare distinct experiences he's had, when so much of what I've been reading in educating myself about racism talks about how systemically pervasive racism is and how focusing on specific obvious actions we can all agree are bad is almost counterproductive.

It was scheduled to start at 7:00 but started late because Anthony Holloway was at an Alderman's meeting.  It ultimately started after 7:20.  In announcing the fact that we would be starting late, Laura Ruth said something like, "It's such a white thing, to start exactly on time," and I was kind of annoyed because srsly, starting on time is not an evil white heteropatriarchal tool of oppression; it just makes life better.
Edith Guffey, Associate General Minister of the national United Church of Christ
Anthony Holloway, Somerville Chief of Police Chief
Elena Latona, Director of Organizational Learning and Research at Third Sector New England and former Executive Director of Centro Presente
Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and co-founder and co-director of the national SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum (Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity)
At one point, Elena said something about how she was so glad that we were having this conversation in a church because as believers we have a vocabulary that you don't get to use in secular spaces; I wished she had explained what specifically she was referring to.  (Also, we almost never talked about faith or anything like it throughout the whole panel discussion.)

Edith talked about how in liberal communities there's this unhealthy dynamic where white people are scared of messing up when around people of color and so hold back authentic parts of themselves.  Edith said, "You respect me most when you treat me as an equal," and, "I don't need you to make me powerful."

Elena's from El Salvador, moved to the U.S. when she was 13.  When she was 30, she was working for the Dept. of Health and Hospitals in Mass., doing an infant mortality study, and she was going and interviewing these women and noticed that they were all Puerto Rican and Black, and all living in neighborhoods like Mattapan and Roxbury and Dorchester that she had never been in.  (All of the panelists definitely had a lot of education, class, etc. privilege, which I think they all explicitly acknowledged.  One thing I noticed in the stories they told was that they all have white spouses, too, though Peggy's the only panelist who is herself white.)

The first two panelists sort of stumbled through prefaces before getting in to their storyes, but Peggy just launched right into her story (I imagine she is very very practiced at giving these kinds of talks) about an experience she had with her grandmother, who came from a slave-holding family in Virginia and moved to Pennsylvania, and her grandmother's "body companion" Bessy, when Peggy was 6 years old.

She then talked about working with male feminists in academia in the 1970s/1980s and how they agreed on so much stuff but then they would say that the syllabi were full and all these other rationalizations for why no texts by women could be added to the curriculum for required first-year courses.  She felt this real tension between her knowledge that these were really nice guys and her frustration, and she recalled something she had read years prior by a woman of color which said "white women are oppressive to work with" and she had been upset by that and had thought "No we're not, we're nice," and had also thought that she was doing this good thing by working with women of color and shouldn't she get credit for that.  She recognized the parallels and realized that "niceness has nothing to do with it."
She said that our culture says that knowledge is white and that whites are knowers.
She was asking herself what she had that she didn't earn besides access to the knowledge system and the money system.  Her brain kept telling her no, there was nothing else, she had earned all she had, but she knew that wasn't true (much though she wanted it to be) and so she prayed on it, because she knew her soul must know this information.  She woke up in the middle of the night, a full sentence floating up at her -- the 1st of what would be 46 elements: "I can be in the company of people of my own race most of the time if I desire."
Her husband would wake up and ask her what she was doing and near the end, she knew, she said, "Ken, I'm writing down stuff I don't want to know."

Tony's from Tampa, Florida, and talked about growing up in a mixed neighborhood and how and I thought of what Deepa D. said about "I do not want to be blind to race."  I think what he meant was that they didn't see race as a reason to set up barriers between themselves, but I still felt it was unfortunate wording.

Elena said that if you have experienced other people framing/defining truth for you (like men telling women, "you're not really angry" or whatever) then you have some understanding of what racism is like.

Peggy talked about an exercise she (or someone) did with some group where they listed the messages they had received as children about what it meant to be whichever gender they were, and she said, "We are all oppressed by gender stereotypes."

An audience member asked about fighting institutional racism, and Edith talked about how some survey said that POC saw institutional racism/the effects thereof most manifest in the issue of retention, though she thinks that some of the other areas play into that -- e.g., people leaving because they recognize they have no hope for promotion.

Peggy talked about having given an all-day training or something in Minnesota and near the end someone came in with evaluations for the participants to fill out and she just had a fit.  She said that this emphasis on measurements and metrics is so white (e.g., No Child Left Behind) and that this kind of deep work that they were doing, they wouldn't know how well it had worked for twenty years.  (Peggy: "I'm still mad about that." / Edith: "We can tell.")  I think she raises a really good point, but again I would push back, because I think having standards is important and that it can get really messy to try to do that in some sort of subjective case-by-case way -- even as I also recognize that having across-the-board standards that don't make allowances for situations that don't fit their mold is also problematic.

Elena talked about values and how which values rise to the top depend on those who are in power.

Elena: "When we get there, it's gonna be more beautiful, vibrant, fun..."
Edith: "I'm gonna make this more complicated because I'm a person of color and I value efficiency."  I really appreciated that 'cause, hi.  She said that she works as an administrator and people can't just come to work an hour late every day just because that's their culture.  She said that we live in a European, white world.

Elena talked about being a token and about how it's about it makes the white people feel -- "They can say "I have a Latina friend," but what they're connecting with is my privilege."

Peggy talked about an experience in 1984 when a woman of color friend said, "I wouldn't be white for $5million," and it hadn't occurred to Peggy that people of color didn't want to be white.
She later talked about how she has to consciously install alternate software to override harddrive of questioning all people of color (including her co-panelists).

One community member talked about how in talking about diversity, no one had mentioned disability.  (She went on to positively mention Darius Goes West.)  I was kind of irritated because it was basically an extended comment about her own personal hobby-horse and hi, the point of this panel is not to explicitly address every single different kind of oppression -- though the next day I was reminded of Blog Against Disability Disablism Day, and admittedly there is something problematic about the elision of certain kinds of oppression/discrimination from our automatic laundry list litany.

There was some discussion about the current generation of young people and about the election of Barack Obama as POTUS.  I appreciated that a number of different voices spoke -- some people saying (with the caveat that this was in liberal communities with a lot of class and money privilege -- I thought of The Cosby Show) that they saw their kids much more able than they were to engage with issues of race but also much more comfortable crossing racial boundaries (e.g., having cross-racial friendships), and some people pointing out the dangers of complacency, etc.
Elena commented that, like Peggy had been saying earlier, we won't know for 20 years the effect of Pres. Obama.

Angela from the Massachusetts Conference talked about a film she had watched and how some of the ideas really stuck with her: white people don't have a culture of their own to latch on to; white people have let go of their history so they feel like "we already let go; why can't you?"
Elena said that white people do have a culture, and one that's being exported around the world in fact -- The Enlightenment, Scientific Method, etc.
Peggy said the film is The Color of Fear and in one piece, a person of color says to a white person, "You're asking me to give up my identity, and that's killing me.  You gave up your identity to become American and it's killing you, too."


As the reception was drawing to a close, I was hanging around to say goodbye to Laura Ruth, and she was talking with Peggy, and Peggy said that she was at Harvard Law School (or maybe she said the Kennedy School, I forget) and basically told the students that they shouldn't focus on the academics, should just get the degree and run.  I commented that I'm such an academic, that I actually think the academics can be really useful and good.

Gary and I stayed while Laura Ruth closed up, and as we were heading out we were talking about something Gary and I had been reading while we'd been waiting, and in response to me, Laura Ruth said (good-naturedly) something about me being literal and linear.
I said, "Yes, I'm literal, I'm linear, I'm pedantic, I'm a fucking white academic, and I like it that way."
She said I'm good that way.
Tags: issues: disability, issues: race, lectures/panels

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