Deconstruct Racism

a quick recap of an all-staff summit

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The executive director stood in front of us with mic in hand, looking sadly at the floor. It seemed like we were all holding our breath, not wanting to make a sound when he started speaking.

He thanked us, the staff, for attending the all-staff summit—a day of professional development. His voice was somber.

He spoke a few more words and then a quote…

During the week before election day, he explained to his students that after-school programming was cancelled on November 8.

A student asked why. The executive director continued,

I was like “oh man– don’t say that! Next Tuesday is election day!”

And the student quickly responded, “Oh, you mean packing day?”

There was a shudder that ran across the room. An audible gasp. Then dead silence again.

After a few seconds of nothing, the executive director continued with his opening remarks: reflecting on the election results, the students and families our organization serves, and the purpose of the all-staff summit that day.

The election was a wrench tool bag thrown into the machinery, and it definitely changed the context of conversations for that week.

Who knew that when talking about antiracism and antibias language we’d be doing so in the context of a Trump presidency?

Unfortunately, no one.

But if there’s a “good” in all of this, perhaps this presidency is the mechanism that puts racism, oppression, and all those difficult and uncomfortable topics that are sidelined into the burning spotlight.

The Staff Summit and Antiracism Work

One of my organization’s commitments is to fight racist language and break down barriers of oppression. It’s a lofty goal but during my few short months at the organization, I find this commitment to antiracism and antibias language apparent.

And within the context of all the craziness that’s transpired since November 8 (nomination of Trump as president, and Bannon and Sessions and so on in his inner circle), the theme of the all-staff summit was eerily fitting.

The first chunk of the day was spent watching a film, “I’m not racist. Am I?,” facilitated by the film’s director, Catherine Wigginton Greene, and Marquis Smalls, another film producer and director.

If you’re not familiar with the film, it follows 12 New York City teenagers and their exploration of race and white privilege.

The conversations they have about their experiences with race and privilege isn’t all that surprising, especially if antiracism and fighting inequality are part
of your everyday life. What’s noteworthy, perhaps, is the lack of regular conversation that exists within their immediate social circles (e.g. family) around race, class, and society. And interestingly this was apparent in varying degrees for all 12 teens regardless of their race. (I’ll explore this some more in another post.)

After we watched the film, Wigginton and Smalls facilitated a discussion. First, we talked about what racism was (and whether the definition discused in the film was accurate: racism = prejudice + power); followed by a few open prompts to get a conversation started among the entire group.

The tl;dr version of what transpired includes what I’ve only read about and seen on the Internet: POC expressing exhaustion and disappointment of the one-sided nature of antiracism and antibias work; the disproportionate way in which POC end up being responsible for the discourse; the inadequate discussions around race, and putting on a noticeably uncomfortable spotlight on white people.

The white people at the staff summit, whether they agreed or not with what was being said, were open to the emerging discussion. A few stood up to speak, visibly uncomfortable about the possibility of overstepping their bounds (or something like that). In the end though, the first bit of the summit, if it accomplished anything, spun the light on white people and whiteness as a race to be analyzed rather than non-whiteness.

I’m not sure to what extent these conversations from the summit will continue throughout the organization in the days to come, but there was a definite shift in mood. We weren’t just talking about race in relation to whiteness and white privilege but opening the door for whiteness and said privilege to be critiqued and analyzed further, and to challenge socially constructed norms based on that.

Closing Out the Day

The second half of the summit consisted of breakout sessions focused different topics. I attended a session on community-based education and what that meant in relation to serving the needs of the immediate community. After a short discussion with the son of the organization’s founder and a few other “experts,” the attendees were split into working groups to discuss how each of us (and our teams) could improve our work to further the organization’s commitment to its community and students.

The session was a bit limiting (teachers or “student-facing” personnel were separated from “nonstudent-facing” personnel”) but perhaps what’s most important at this stage is the start of a discussion.

Once the breakout sessions were over, we reconvened to “close out” the day’s conversations.

The work isn’t by any means over, and the staff summit barely put a dent into the conversation about antiracism and antibias language that needs to continue to be part of the organization’s regular messaging.

It will be interesting to see how all of this continues to play out in the next coming weeks, and the next few years years as local and national elections come up again.

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