Connect with me on Facebook Connect with me on Twitter Connect with me on LinkedIn Connect with me on Instagram Connect with me on Pinterest Connect with me on YouTube Connect with me on iTunes Connect with me on Podiobooks

Tag: white privilege

I Bet You do it Too

The first Community Writers Retreat I put together for Door of Hope Writing Group, the panel of facilitators was white. Every writer I’d identified to come and teach us about writing in an all-day conference was Caucasian. I wasn’t being racist. I was asking for favors: will you come—unpaid—to the Retreat and teach a workshop on writing? Of course I had hit up my writer friends, people I knew best. And the people I knew best were white.

When I had the lineup completed, I looked at the folks I’d selected and thought, wait a minute. So many of our audience weren’t gonna  be white. They would be African American. How could I offer them an all-white panel?

This, as they say, would not do.

So what did I do?

That year, and in all the years that followed, I went WAY outside my comfort zone to make sure our lineup of facilitators was predominantly Black.

I asked a mutual friend to please introduce me to a glorious African American writer who I’d heard reading her work. I met with her. I asked if she would be a facilitator for us.

I researched Memphis African American writers. I cold-called a published novelist. I asked if he would please come teach a workshop for us.

I contacted a famous local African American journalist and asked her if she would, perhaps, consider coming to speak to us about writing.

I went to Maggie’s Pharm and asked Valerie June—who had not yet blown up the roots music world and clerked at the store—if she would talk about songwriting to our group.

I called a well-known orator and politely asked if he would perform for us during lunch.

I reached back in time and asked a writer from an old writing group to please come educate us about getting published.

I emailed a preacher who I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat and asked him to come talk about spiritual writing.

I asked a young spoken word artist to entertain us during our lunch break.

I kept at my talented writer friend who did not believe herself ready yet to, please, come enlighten us.

In each and every instant, those I asked said yes. Immediately, graciously, enthusiastically. Several became friends. One we believed for a while to be related to my husband, but that’s whole ‘nother story. All were full of information the participants lapped up. I continue to be incredibly proud to know each one of the facilitators.

The point?

It’s not weak to admit your natural approach is to favor your friends. Those who are like you. People you know and are comfortable with. It is, however, wrong to not analytically examine the results for evidence of implicit bias. To ask yourself, is this skewed? Can I benefit from widening the lens? Am I, in fact, abusing my position of power to exclude those who should be included?

That was one of the many, many lessons the Door of Hope Writing Group taught me over the years.

An Outside Plant

He had one plant, small.

I had three hanging baskets and two big ferns, fat.

He’d been there when I arrived, he and his wife wandering among the plants. It was mid-day Wednesday, no one else at the nursery. A young, spring day. The swarms of eager Memphians hadn’t yet descended on the unsuspecting begonias and geraniums. No one in sight. Except me. Him. His wife.

When I’d wrangled my ferns onto the cart, I pulled them behind me toward the checkout. The clerk was watering the hanging baskets. Earlier, I’d asked him where his ferns might be. He directed me to the back. He’d been nice, polite. Absolutely fine.

I pointed my cart toward the clerk’s row. In the meantime, the man had separated from his wife. He approached the clerk in front of me. He was older. I’m older, but he was older than me. Slight. African American.

He asked the clerk a question. The clerk asked him to repeat his question. “Indoor or out?” he asked, holding his plant with both hands. “Outdoor,” the clerk answered, curt. He looked over the man’s head. At me. Behind the man. He asked, “Are you ready to check out?”

The man said yes.

The clerk said no, I meant her. He put down his hose and moved to the checkout. He bypassed the man standing there, holding his plant. A yellow flower. In a yellow pot. With delicate buds about to open. The clerk was white. I am white. I’ve already told you the man’s race. His wife, now waiting at the checkout, was African American.

The clerk positioned himself behind the counter. He waited for me to step forward.

I’ve been at such a moment before. Many times. Mostly when the white clerk looks into a sea of waiting customers and picks me, the white face, out of the crowd. That strikes me as colorblindness, by which I mean the inability to see the people of color waiting. Focusing instead on the “important” person in the group. The white person. When that happens and I step aside for those there first, the clerk seems genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t know others had been there before me.

This was different. It wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was as if the clerk were angry at the man for something he had done to the clerk. Like showing up at the nursery wanting to buy his one small plant.

I said, “No.” I motioned to the couple. “They were here before me. Y’all go ahead.”

The man’s wife said, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” The man said, “We’re not in any hurry.” The clerk said nothing. The wife nodded at me to go ahead. 

I bought my expensive plants. The clerk yakked the whole time he rang me up. Nervous, it seemed to me, flustered maybe ’cause I refused his offer of priority. When he finished my order, he turned to the couple. “Let me get her packed in the car, and I’ll be right with you.” He said it to the man, but it was like he was saying it for me: See? You’re wrong—I didn’t mean a thing in the world by it. 

After the plants were securely in the car, I left. I did not see the clerk ring up the man’s flower. I hope the man went home and knelt in his yard and scooped up dirt and patted in his flower and now he’s sitting on his porch with his wife, waiting for it to grow. An outside plant. A tough plant. It’ll do fine in the Memphis sun, as long as the rest of us leave it alone.

I thought I’d be shot. Dean Andy Andrews announced that, following the Wednesday morning service, he would be walking the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He invited us to join him. I attended the Wednesday service, but I believed if I walked in the neighborhood I’d be shot.

You need to know: Alabama Avenue, which runs directly behind the cathedral, was at one point called out as one of the most dangerous streets in the city. Cathedral staff regularly heard the pop! of gunfire. The Cathedral was predominantly white; the neighborhood predominantly black. But Andy was determined to get to know our neighbors, hence the walking-and-praying plan.

I prayed about whether to make the walk. At the end of the praying, I was no less convinced I’d be shot. But I figured we all had to die sometime, and I’d feel worse if Andy went by himself and got shot than I would if I went and got shot. So I showed up in the parking lot with the gaggle of white folks who agreed to walk. After a prayer, our ragtag group set out. We were led—thank you, Jesus—by an African-American congregant who was a local activist and schooled us on how not to rile up our more dangerous neighbors. “Pick up trash” she said. “That way they won’t be worried about what you’re up to, coming into their neighborhood.”

Cross from chip bags picked up in the neighborhood
Cross from chip bags picked up in the neighborhood

I didn’t get shot. No one got shot. No one even got accosted or yelled at. We got some hard stares until we became a fixture on Wednesday mornings. I kept it up until my hips gave out and I had to quit. Over the course of those walks the neighborhood morphed from something I drove quickly through to houses I recognized, store owners I’d bought chips from, a discovered tucked-away park.

Saturday morning, I was thinking about this episode of fear as I listened to the Very Reverend Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis speak. I was attending a St. Mary’s workshop with a really long title but, essentially, it concerned race, white privilege, and Ferguson.

I’ve been so several of these types of workshops, and sometimes they fall flat. This one didn’t. I wondered why. Maybe because the day began with love. The group was directed to remember love. To discuss with others at the table a specific instance of when you felt loved. Often, such workshops begin with a video or images designed to reveal white privilege. I find these exercises interesting, but even so they can come across with a kind of “gotcha” feel. Love is reassuring.

Flame in the Rock
Flame in the Rock

Significantly, we were also asked to share a time when we didn’t feel loved. It’s hard to be standoffish with another human being after you’ve revealed such a thing. Most interesting, the responses at my table—both loved and unloved—often went to community. Feeling loved: teams, classrooms, writing groups ( 🙂 ). Feeling unloved: school classes, work situations. We are a relationship species, and a workshop designed to build relationship had to be on the right track.

The day ended with relationship, too. The Dean asked us to covenant with one other person in the room to continue the conversation. The woman sitting next to me, a stranger, and I covenanted to get together. She’d responded when I blurted out that Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I was weepy about everything, so be prepared. This random confession—one I didn’t want to make—may have been the thing she most connected with.

Transformed
Transformed

So, anyway. I’ll add “Attend a workshop” to the list of things I’ve shared that you can do if your desire to address racism has been piqued by recent events. I’ll also pass along two websites the Dean recommended. Campaign Zero which breaks down problems and provides policy solutions for which you can volunteer. I haven’t studied it, but it looks good.

The other site he recommended was the fairly famous Harvard test for implicit racial bias, entitled (surprise, surprise) implicit.harvard.edu I took this online test 5 or more years ago and scored somewhat high on bias for European Americans, which, sadly, both whites and blacks frequently do.

This time I showed a moderate bias for African-Americans, which I found curious. The test is facial-recognition based, and perhaps I’ve spent more time in the company of African-American faces the last 5 years? I don’t know, but, honestly, it doesn’t much matter. I resolved many years ago to admit I have racial prejudice and to never forget it, or else my many years in a racist society (I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s when racism was the law) would default me to a racist reaction more often than not.

Before I sign off, an even simpler thing you can do is create a #BlackLivesMatter list on Twitter. It’s an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the movement, and if you’re like me, you’ll learn immeasurably from it. If you want a harder schooling, tweet something in support of the movement, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Then wait for the deluge of racists who troll this conversation to flood forth, calling you and the #BlackLIvesMatter supporters every ugly name in the book. Never again will you believe we live in a post-racial America. You’ll also develop immense respect for those who are courageous enough to do this work.

What Can I Do?

I’m starting a new series here. I’m announcing this new series so you can skip over my followup posts if you want, ’cause I’m a polite Southern woman, and I sure don’t want to impose. But some of you want these posts. I know you do because I’ve been reading your comments and the question you’ve been asking as a result of the terrible murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. is, “What can I do?”

I don’t know what you can do. Well, that’s a confidence-inspiring beginning, isn’t it? But hang in there. What I do know is that some of the best news of the Good News is that we aren’t all feet. Or heads. Or ears. We each get to discern our own role in being God’s body on earth. I’m not gonna cite the Bible because, Lord, that gives me the willies, but it’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Sr. Simone Campbell on Krista Tippett‘s show On Being revealed herself to be stomach acid.) Paul’s “body of God” analogy is worth finding because—of all things—it has Paul, the king of interminable yadda, yadda, yadda, being funny.

So. You will need to figure out what you can do. But, if you’re like me and you love nothing more than being in community, MORE GOOD NEWS! You don’t have to figure it out alone. Nor, if you’re like me, do you have to discern correctly right out of the box. In fact, who’s to say I ever discern correctly? I may never know the true value of what I do. That’s okay. I do the best I can, and I trust others are doing the best they can. I duck my head and focus on my own little God wagon. And when I look up, I see the community that is supporting me in my trying. There’s a lot of comfort in that.

In this series, I’m gonna share names of groups, speakers, essays, events, columns, memoirs, paintings, classes, tweeters, pages, and other opportunities that have in function helped me answer the question: what can I do to fight racism?

I say “in function” because I did not begin this journey wondering how I could help combat racism. My feet first hit this path when I left my Mississippi home and moved to Memphis and, like Lot’s wife, I paused and looked over my shoulder. I, too, turned to salt. I stood transfixed by my ignorance. Ignorance of my state’s history. Of the country’s history. Of racial history. I read and read and read and read. Then, in one of those evolutionary dog-legs where sudden change occurs, my husband asked Evelyn Baker, what is this Memphis School of Servant Leadership I hear you speak of? He and I began taking classes, one of which was Racism to Reconciliation. I began facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, a group whose members have experienced homelessness and who published its first book last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. And I kept reading.

Major disclaimer here: I’m still not sure I’m doing anything to end racism. If this confuses you, refer to paragraph 3 above.

With that out of the way, here’s my kick-off organization. Drum roll, please: the Memphis School of Servant Leadership!!! I know. If you were paying attention, you already guessed. It’s a dynamic organization. Things are happening all the time. Follow them on the FaceBook page. Or if you prefer a group, you can join here. The current inspiration asks us to create and post signs with the hashtag DontBurnOurBlackChurches. Here’s how MSSL arrived at that action:

Today we met at the table to discuss Racism to Reconciliation.
We met Black, White, young, old, weary, fresh, seeking and knowing—- all Beloved.
In the tension and in the tender moments we listened to each other, shared thoughts and frustrations and then we strategized.
We’re not finished but we ask you to join us.
White Brothers and Sisters please post a picture of yourself with a sign saying {{{Don’t Burn Our Black Churches}}} using the hashtag #DontBurnOurBlackChurches. OUR STATEMENT: 
Seven Black Churches have burned since Charleston. We, white people, stand in solidarity with the Black Christian community. Arsons are intended to intimidate, silence and disembody Black people.Not in our name, Community Friends of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership

Obviously, you can join this movement even if you’re not in Memphis. Or—this is so very important—this activity might not be for you. I’m making a big commitment here, but I truly promise to keep going and post about other avenues I’ve used in my path of discerning. Maybe a later post will strike a chord with you. Until then, I’ll throw out a few more options:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow, David M. Oshinsky. Because one day at Square Books in Oxford, during the time of my life when I automatically went first to the African American section of bookstores, I spied this book, unaware it would send me on a journey of discovery about my family’s racist past.

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer. Because listening is a vital skill to bring with you on this path and, while I’m not altogether certain this is the best Parker Palmer book to learn his listening techniques, it will have to do.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh. Because when I read on the list in this foundational essay the fact that “flesh tone” bandages match my skin, I mused, hunh–I already thought of that, and it always makes me feel smart to have my own observations confirmed.

Wendi C. Thomas‘s Facebook page. She’s a journalist who this fall will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Better jump on her bandwagon now. Seriously, she does so much of the work for you; all you have to do is read.

The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman. Because he spoke to me so completely, and he might to you too. Besides, I need something of beauty on this list.

 

Follow Me

Connect with me on Facebook Connect with me on Twitter Connect with me on LinkedIn Connect with me on Instagram Connect with me on Pinterest Connect with me on YouTube Connect with me on iTunes Connect with me on Podiobooks

Subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,110 other subscribers

© 2017 - Ellen Morris Prewitt | EllenMorrisPrewitt.com