America’s Race Conversation

This week I went to a community discussion in Syracuse, NY about the recent rally in Charlottesville, and how to counter white supremacy in America. The room was packed and vibrated with the humid air of a hundred people packed into a church basement. At the front of the room was a panel that centered five people of color: a woman from Planned Parenthood, a man who works for the ACLU and specializes in countering extremist groups in America, a clan mother of the local Native American tribe the Onondaga Nation and a member of the International Socialists Organization.

Following is a collection of memorable moments from the evening. Read on for outbursts, white fragility, a relearning of history and current day culture and plans for revolution.

“When Europeans came to America, they stole indigenous people’s land without acknowledging their humanity. The white, heterosexual cis-gendered men who marched with torches through the streets in Charlottesville did not exist in a vacuum-they exist in this same reality of America.

The fact that the threat of white nationalistic terrorism has been how America has operated for hundreds of years does not mean that it has to continue the racist national policies of poverty and segregation.

“This fight is not new, and it’s with a heavy heart that I acknowledge that this is a new conversation for some. Genocide of Native Americans, enslavement of African Americans, and the continued transformation of that oppression until today. The fact is that is that it took deaths to bring the issue of racism in America to the national stage this week. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention until now: welcome to the struggle to say who is included in shaping history.

Queue the speaker from the Socialist organization:

“When we talk about race, it’s also important to talk about class in America. White and black slaves had begun to join together and rebel against their conditions, and so the rich whites gave the white slaves a little bit more power than the black slaves, to sow discontent. And then they recruited the poor whites to track run away African American slaves who they should have seen as allies.

“Not only in the US do we like to divide to conquer, but we also do this abroad. Every time we bomb another country we whip up hatred against who we’re bombing.

We can’t rely on the government to deny the white supremacists their permits to rallies- this only feeds white supremacists’ narrative as an oppressed group. We have to go out into the streets and confront them, as happened in Boston.

At this point in the meeting, the presenter from the ACLU began to speak again about white fragility, and how white people need to learn to separate themselves from their “whiteness” before we can have real and transformative conversations. Suddenly a white middle aged man yells out from the back of the room:

“You better change your word choice. I don’t like the way you’re talking. You don’t need to use that language. You keep talking like that and I’m going to roll. No- I’m not going to shut up, because you’ve been running your mouth for the past 20 minutes…”

The room goes silent, as this white man spews anger at the presenter, and interrupts the whole meeting. The presenter, who is a black man, sits back and listens patiently. As members from the audience try to get the white man shouting from the back of the room to be quiet, the presenter says to let the man speak, he wants to make sure that he feels like he’s been heard. After the white man finishes, the presenter speaks directly about what just took place.

“When you come into this space to talk about how we can make a more racially just society, you need to be prepared to be uncomfortable. Especially if you’re white.

As a black man in America, I am always uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable everyday because this world is not built for me, it is built to assault me. I should be angry at that man that just yelled at me, but I have been trained to work harder, be better and settle with half the shit that other people get.

I have a PhD in this field and I still have to engage in an elementary conversation about white fragility. Never advise someone on how to respectfully behave until you try to have a conversation as a black person in America. There has been a state sanctioned assault on black and brown bodies in America everyday since 1492.”

The presenter from the ACLU then explained how white supremacist groups in the US are using the same recruiting tactics as ISIS. They are targeting people who feel outcast from society, and are looking for somewhere to belong.

A member of the local Black Lives Matter group comes to the front of the room, and speaks his mind about how we are looking at white supremacists and neo nazis in the US:

“We cannot blame racist actions on mental illnesses. We cannot just write people off as “crazy.” We need to accept that we created these people with our American culture. We need to honestly confront how we view race in America, and take responsibility for what we are as a country and begin to fix it.

If we dehumanize white supremacists, we are no better than them. We will replicate the same system that oppresses us if we scapegoat white supremacists. We were all raised in this racist society. We must take responsibility for it within ourselves.”

At one point, the presenter from the ACLU says that he does not feel any safer because of what happened in Boston, and the black Muslim woman sitting next to me raises her hands by her head and whispers, “thank you”. Another presenter takes the microphone:

“To the people that are asking, ‘How can Trump do this?’ you’ve got to realize that this is the same man that spent the first two years of Obama’s presidency calling him a non-citizen. White people, I don’t need you to tell me the issues. You need to use your power and privilege in your own spaces to make change. The mobilizations in Boston did not make me feel safer, and that’s why I’m here today.

“True mass mobilizations are multi-racial. We need to begin to dismantle these ideas about our assumed differences, and bridge them. It’s a shame Black Lives Matter did not take the stage today, but they felt that this was not the platform for them. They have never had a room full of 100 people at their meetings, so if you show up for their issues, they will start showing up for your meetings.”

A Black Lives Matter organizer stands up in the crowd, and expresses a few opinions:

“This predominately white coalition is not the vehicle for challenging fascism if it’s not democratic and accountable. It is currently alienating our group, which has taken the lead in spearheading racial justice issues in the city.

At this point, a white lady stands up in the crowd:

“I don’t want to DIE! There are a whole lot of nuts out in the world right now. How do I know that white man in the back of the room is not texting his friends to bring guns and kill us all. I don’t want to die. I DON’T WANT TO DIE. How do I know I’m safe. I want to help, but I don’t want to die. Can we all just hold hands and sing together?”

At this point, with the second outburst from a heightened person in the room, everyone begins to get on edge a little bit. The white man who had spoke out earlier stormed out of the room, and another man escorted him out. It was all chaotic, and seemed very unorganized and organic. We were getting into the meat of the racial conversation that people rarely talk about in America, but is ever present in our lives- even if we are privileged enough to be able to ignore it.

“We’re been out there fighting this fight for years. And we’re black and brown speakers standing up here on the stage. You are not the target, we are,” the moderator tells this white woman.

“Kumbaya is not going to fix the problem right now. We have to really discuss these issues.”

Another impassioned white person shouts from the audience again.

“A lot of white people have died fighting for racial justice! You have to recognize that! The Civil War, the Civil Rights movement…” the man goes on and on while the majority of people in the audience groan.

These outbursts by the white folks in the room is what is termed by academics as “white fragility:” a state in which even a small amount of racial stress “becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” according to academic Robin DiAngelo (see White Fragility).

“No one was trying to say that white people don’t help with the movement…

Also, do you think you’re better than the South- that Charlottesville is the South’s problem- and racism is not a problem in the North as well?”

the Muslim woman sitting next to me mutters in an exasperated voice.

Attempting to move the conversation onward even with all these detours led by white people insecure about their own whiteness, a black woman takes the stage and announces that she is ready.

“I’m ready for something to happen. We’re losing our kids in the streets- the police literally come from the practice of slave patrols.

WE’RE LOSING OUR KIDS TO POLICE OFFICERS MURDERING THEM. One woman in this room is scared? We should all be scared. Our district is the most corrupted district in New York state. We need court watches to file and track the injustices happening there. We need people to videotape police interactions with citizens anytime they see anything.”

The meeting continued on for awhile after that, and I think most people in the room left with unresolved feelings and emotions. But that’s because this is an ongoing conversation, the racial conversation in America is not going to be solved overnight, because we have all grown up in a society where we were not encouraged to discuss these issues, or even analyse them in ourselves before. Much less being critical of the state and the racist systems that inhabit it.

Anyway, I won’t provide a clear end to this article, because this conversation is just beginning for many Americans. And we have a long way to go. Let’s go.

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