I recently received an email from a local community group about a meeting based on racial oppression. It read in part:
The topic for our discussion session will be the Impact of Racial Oppression, Privilege, and Post Racial Liberalism. As you can note almost daily in the national news and as equally frequent in your individual lives, racism rears its head constantly and impacts almost every area of our personal and professional lives. The existence and its impact is determined by what lens you view it through, and often a level of privilege will skew how it’s viewed. There is a misperception that because we have [had] a Black President and people of color have made great strides, racism no longer exists… Some have learned to internalize racism and cope effectively while others suffer in silence and fall victim to its effects. Please come and listen to strong Facilitators, share your personal story and participate in the discussion of this important topic.
“White privilege is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.” Like all things racial, the impact, ramifications, solution, and even existence of such a phenomenon are emotionally charged and can easily lead to angry debates. However, I decided to attend the meeting to listen to the presentations, meet the individuals who would come out for such an event, and partake in the discussion.
Of the roughly thirty people who attended, fewer than a dozen were white and the rest were black. Many of the attendees knew each other from living and working in our community and everyone seemed very open, friendly and polite. The whites seemed curious to find out more about the topic rather than skeptical, and the blacks seemed extremely sincere in their efforts to communicate their observations, and life experiences.
Opening Remarks and Group Activity
The Facilitator began by acknowledging the potential discomfort and warned attendees may “have their toes stepped on” but strongly encouraged everyone to “be open, honest, and have a great dialogue.” The local head of the NAACP and several black ministers were in attendance and encouraged political participation at all levels.
A local Pastor/Community Organizer then prepared us for a group activity to “raise our consciousness” and challenge us to “become more culturally and self aware” of “internalized racism and racial oppression” and “the idea that has persisted in this country for 600 years that black bodies have no value.” He blamed “internalized racism” for the disparity in black owned businesses, elected officials and registered voters.
The Pastor concluded that racial issues still divide our community and, though things often seem calm on the surface, from time to time they “still raised their ugly head.” The one example he gave to support this was a lynching of three black men in the local county capital in 1906 [for the alleged murder of a white family]. There was a visceral reaction in many of the black audience members when this horrendous event was recounted.
Attendees were then divided into five groups to create a “Soul Sculpture” to illustrate one word descriptions and solutions to the problem of oppression.
Group One defined this as “Greed” by having one gentleman sit in the middle of the group. When the man attempted to stand, other members held him in place. Their solution to “Greed,” was “Redistribution of Wealth.” The man was then helped to his feet by fellow members who held back those who tried to keep him down.
Group Two chose “Stolen Birthrights,” One member barked insults and criticisms at the others. These participants sank under the assault of the barrage until they were all sitting on the floor as this individual lorded over those he had verbally assaulted and humiliated. The group then portrayed “Self Realization.” As the original gentleman stated things such as “You are nothing,” another member responded with words of encouragement such as, “You are a child of God. You are equal.”
Group Three presented a powerful illustration of the word “Differences.” At first each member stood in a circle and pointed at each other to draw attention to individual differences and place blame on others. The group then portrayed the solution as “Equality” and instead of pointing at each other, every member came together in a group hug.
Group Four enacted “Frustration.” One lady was seated on the floor as another woman pantomimed physically assaulting her, while another group member stood with his back to the action to portray indifference. The group next illustrated “Solutions.” Group members ordered the oppressor to stop and challenged the indifferent member to pay attention to what was going on and get involved.
Group Five chose “The Poor.” One young man stood on a chair to illustrate Government. This individual teasingly held out dollar bills. As members eagerly reached for this money, the man jerked the bills back and laughed at the feeble attempts of The Poor. As the solution, this group chose “Shared Opportunity.” The young man portraying Government handed each member a dollar bill instead of just teasing them with it. The Pastor/Community Organizer quickly pointed out that this solution was really about “sharing resources.”
The Main Speaker was introduced and for the next twenty minutes shared his personal experiences and gave what he presented as scientific, psychological, and sociological evidence of White Privilege and its devastating effect on the black community.
Sadly, whereas the Facilitator and the Community Organizer had conducted their segments with directness, honesty, and thoughtfulness, the Speaker quickly veered from this approach. The Speaker began by stressing emphatically that, “I do not hate white people” and that one of the big misperceptions about his goals was that he wanted “to kill all white people,” but then added as an aside “As if that were even possible.” He attributed even the thought of such a possibility to “the irrationality of racism.”
From that point, the meeting devolved into an outlandish parody of an intellectual discussion. I felt like I was watching an old Damon Wayan’s performance of Oswald Bates. The “facts” were unscientific, the “psychology” was ungrounded, and the “history” was skewed. If not for the obvious anger with which he infused his speech, it would have been impossible to take the Speaker seriously.
As scientific proof for his statements, the Speaker cited (incorrectly), “A test out there to measure hidden bias: The Implicit Achievement Test” which he described as a test “for whites” which included “a brain scan accompanied by imagery” that “determined bias against blacks.” The Speaker was most likely alluding to The Implicit Association Test (IAT) which does not incorporate any type of brain scan; is used to measure supposed bias in age groups, ethnicity, personal appearance, and other categories as well; and is open to debate about interpretation of results, testing factors, and personal experiences of participants. You can take the test yourself at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.
With the cadence and fervor of an old time Gospel minister, the Speaker delivered a message that was well-received by the black audience members as he made broad generalizations backed by supposed sociological studies, called out “negro collaborators” (which drew an enthusiastic emotional response), and used a high mocking voice to portray “white responses” (though he did acknowledge there are some “contributions of whites who had actually helped out,” specifically John Brown, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Viola Liuzzo, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner , and Marilyn Buck). As he wound up his presentation, the Speaker divulged the deceptive nature of systemic White Racism by stating that the “dynamic of racism mutates from: Maintenance to Establishment to Expansion to Refinement.” These four stages repeat throughout a society’s history until “it does not appear to be what it is: Racism 2.0.”
Finally it was time for the Group Discussion. I had planned to ask if blacks could be racist, but there was no need when the Speaker declared “only whites can be racists, because they have the power and control the economics.”
The Discussion section was as unbalanced and bizarre as the Speaker’s presentation, primarily because it was dominated by the Speaker. Whenever an attendee would raise a legitimate issue in need of an honest answer, the Speaker would inevitably tie it back to racism.
When a black woman shared how she had experienced bias within the community for lighter skinned individuals, the Speaker revealed a stealthy racist conspiracy in every institution from the old plantation system to the modern day cosmetic and entertainment industry.
When another black lady asked “How we can go outside of the community until we clean up the inside of the house?” the Speaker explained this conundrum by arguing that the blacks in America are “tied to whites at the hip.” To illustrate this he then cited the laughable proof “We know in Anthropology 101 that if you raise a child with giraffes, and the child survives a year, it is questionable whether he will walk. We know definitely he will not talk. But we know after 6 months he will begin to mimic the characteristics of the giraffe – being on the top of trees. The human being is unique in that respect. Otherwise, we become a part of the culture in which we are immersed.”
A local black elected official saw the solutions as “beginning with the young folk in the community to change behaviors. We can’t exhibit the behavior – and then criticize other folks for criticizing the behavior.” The Speaker adamantly argued, “Every maladjustment in the African American personality serves the social, political, economic purpose for the benefit of Europeans.”
The Pastor used the example of the “Maniac of Gadara” (Mark Ch. 5) to explain the internalization of racism on the African American community by explaining the first thing Christ did upon encountering the man was to ask him, “What is your name?” and how this should especially resonate with a black community which has lost its African name and adopted slave names. He described the self-harming the demon possessed individual did with “acting upon his body what the larger community was acting out on him.” Another participant expanded on this by explaining how the white community viewed blacks as the Gadarene by putting them in chains or jails, blaming them for physical destruction of the community, labeling them as dangerous, shunning them and ostracizing them to the outer fringes of society.
The Speaker concluded by disparaging what he called “the holiest of days: July 4th.” He compared the traditional ways of celebrating this as displaying American’s “love to live in the past. Such phrases as Remember the Alamo, Remember Pearl Harbor are still repeated. Yet, when it comes to slavery, white America says, ‘That was a long time ago – get over it.’”
At this point, the Pastor ended on a high note by thanking everyone for attending and reminding us how there was nowhere else in the community where such a conversation could be held.
It was an incredible experience to attend this meeting and hear experiences, examples, and arguments from different points of view. It was encouraging to see a diverse local community come together to attempt to tackle this divisive issue. However, every facet of the meeting seemed to reflect two different realities. Every word, every example, every historical event, even every Bible verse were interpreted and applied from a completely different subjective and emotional basis. And, really, when dealing with this topic, it is hard to imagine any way it could be otherwise.
I could not agree more with the Pastor’s statement that there was nowhere else in our community where such a conversation could be held. In fact, I have never even considered the possibility of some of the statements, insights, and conclusions that were shared by my fellow attendees. I found myself agreeing with one comment before being experiencing disbelief after another. It seemed possible to find common ground with most of the attendees, but then the inevitable boogeyman of White Privilege would pop up and stop any further self-questioning or inquiry in its tracks.
The part of the discussion that will always haunt me was a personal encounter the Facilitator shared at both the beginning and end of the meeting. This has undoubtedly been the driving emotional encounter of his life. When he was around the age of five, he was swimming with some other black children at a pool in a private community. The caretaker, an old white man, yelled at the children and asked them what they were doing. When the children informed him they had a relative who lived there, the old white man dumped a bucket of chlorine on them and shouted, “You n—–s destroy everything” before storming off. It brings tears to my eyes to even recount such an event.
There is no way I can ever come close to imagining how those words ripped apart the tender heart of a precious five-year-old child. And though I looked at the same individual, now a strong, professional, highly successful black man more than five decades later, the pain and anger and cry for protection and justice of that little five-year-old was still evident. I wanted to reach back in time and strangle that old white man with my bare hands. What that one racist individual said and did over five decades ago has had eternal repercussions. As Christ said, it would have been better for that old man to have had a millstone placed around his neck and be cast into the sea than to have so wounded a precious little child. But I can’t do anything about that, except remember it and share it in the hopes that I will never be that person. But, then, if I myself am only viewed as a default ally of that old white man in that I benefit unjustly from something called White Privilege, isn’t that how I will be viewed anyway?