Tuesday, July 15, 2008
White reader Liza sent me the following email, asking for suggestions about how to get a dialogue on race started in her small, predominantly white town.
I've offered some suggestions below; do you have others for her? What can an ordinary person do to promote discussions of whiteness, and of race more generally, in her own community?
Just found this blog yesterday and am intrigued. I am a white woman in my early 40's who lives in a predominantly white rural town of about 4000 people. I have always tried my best to instill in my children non-racist views, but with only a couple of black kids at our school, I have found few opportunities to really broach the subject in a way that doesn't sound like an after school special.
I know that there is racism in the world, in our community, and I would like them to be more prepared to deal with these things as they head out into the world, not to mention working on my own understanding. I have thought of trying to start a social group or study group of some kind to get a dialogue going, but I fear making a novelty out of the blacks in our town if I suggest such a thing.
Are there any suggestions out there?
First of all, I applaud your efforts. America is moving toward the probability of electing its first black* president, yet the ongoing effects and manifestations of American white supremacy continue to cause declining circumstances and fortunes for many non-white people. Serious, productive local dialogues on race are as crucial as ever, and yet, such a conversation is rarely welcome in a residential setting like yours.
It's interesting that your desire to address race is framed in terms of the few black folks in your town. Have you considered addressing instead, somehow, the majority? White folks have a race too, even though in a setting like yours, they probably rarely ever think seriously about what it means to be "white" (and when they do, they tend to think and talk about it in objectionable ways, as I'm sure you know).
Starting a social or reading group on "race" is a great idea. Churches often have the space (and sometimes, some resources) for such a gathering, as do libraries and town halls. Even a restaurant or a coffee shop can be a good meeting place, and moving an established group from home to home can also work well.
A reading group could focus on race in many ways. There are innumerable novels and memoirs that address race, including whiteness (which again, I recommend as your focus, since your group members are likely to be mostly or all white). If you'd eventually like some reading suggestions, write back to me--I have a long list. You could also consider the ones I've reviewed so far on this blog.
Watching films together and then discussing them afterward is also a good way to get a dialogue going. Race and whiteness are depicted in ways that can be discussed in just about any movie, though some are more likely to generate discussion than others. One that has proven its value for this purpose in, I'm sure, thousands of such gatherings is The Color of Fear, a powerful documentary about a multiracial group of men who discuss their racial experiences together.
These sorts of documentaries are often accompanied by discussion guides (as are many novels and memoirs that deal with race). As I noted in yesterday's post, you could begin working with films by asking your local library to purchase them. For instance, Free Indeed is a brief, inexpensive drama about white privilege and service work, put together by the Mennonite Central Committee.
If you can generate enough interest on this topic in your community to get some funds together, you might consider inviting a speaker on whiteness and racial issues. Again, the local library can be a good setting for this. If you're familiar with Tim Wise, for instance, he's not as expensive as you might think. Many scholars from colleges in your state would also be willing to speak for a modest fee on particular aspects of the topic (and Google can help you find them). "Whiteness" has been a topic of intensive interest and study for at least a decade now, and as a result, many speakers are available for such talks.
Particular lecture and discussion-group topics could include race relations in your particular part of the state or country--how, for instance, did it get so white? (It wasn't an accident, nor the mere coincidence that most of your town's current residents probably think it was). Was your town a "sundown town"? (James Loewen is also a traveling speaker, and a damn good one too.) Who were the particular indigenous groups that inhabited your area, and what happened to them? How did the European immigrants to your area become "white," and why did they do so? How does their choice to become "white" continue to affect the lives of their descendants today? How is race addressed in your local schools? What are the area's kids learning about race, and how else are they learning it? How is race played out in your community in relation to other factors, such as social class, or gender, or the larger national and even international economies? Are there, for instance, migrant workers in your area? If so, how long has that been happening, and why did it start? What do local white people think, and perhaps fail to understand, about migrant workers?
Finally, I do not suggest a sort of celebratory, appreciative, buffet-like approach to these matters. White supremacy isn't just a thing of the past, but too many white efforts to address "race" end up merely celebrating other races (and often in limited, simplistic, and patronizing ways), instead of addressing "whiteness" and its significance for ongoing inequities and injustices.
I hope that this blog's readers will add other suggestions for you in this post's "comments" section, and I wish you the best of luck in this important effort. You'll probably meet some resistance, and you'll need to be persistent and brave if you really do want to get people thinking and acting. But that's the only way that the kind of change you're looking for ever happens.
Best of luck, and please let me know sometime what becomes of your efforts,
*This word originally appeared as "black" (with quotation marks around it), but in response to a discussion about that in the Comments section for this post, I've removed the quotation marks. Thanks to jw, Lori, and Restructure! for addressing this issue.