America is experiencing a reckoning.
The filming of police brutality has exposed truths Black people have known for hundreds of years; our society was built upon maintaining white supremacy. In big ways and small, our behaviors as a culture protect the property,health, wealth, safety and feelings of white people through the process of diminishing and destroying the health, wealth, safety and feelings of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC).
Now that the lens is focused, we have a new laser-sharp vision trained on the processes by which white people have placed ourselves above non-white people, some of the small injuries, the thousand paper cuts that have wounded our sisters and brothers.
Today, I saw a post from Bernice King, whose father is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even the statement, “Let’s invite more Black people to the table,” implies ownership of the table and control of who is invited.
Racism is about power.
That statement got me thinking about a work experience I witnessed that I have struggled to make sense of. I’ve tried several times to write about it, but it remained a tangle of thoughts until I read her words.
I’ve been working for cultural organizations in Portland since a year after I arrived, 2014. Until March of this year, when I was laid off from Portland Parks and Recreation due to COVID, I worked at PP&Rs Community Music Center (CMC), which provides music education to the community in southeast Portland. For four years before that, I worked at the Multnomah Arts Center (MAC), which provides arts education (music, dance, visual art, theatre) in southwest Portland. For one summer, I worked with Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation (THPRD), helping organize and promote concerts and theatre in the park.
And for one summer, which was originally intended to be a long-term engagement, I worked with Willamette Writers, assisting the director in with organizing writers groups around the state, with writing competitions, and, most importantly, planning and executing the writer’s conference that was held in August.
Working within these organizations has given me some perspective on both the
decision-making process and the effects of those decisions on the respective communities.
My experience with the managers at THPRD and CMC has been educational, each of them showing how to lead with humility and strength. Particularly at CMC, I have watched how the traditionally white space of chamber music education has grown and opened to new leadership, to activities and directions led by people of color. Watching leaders step out of the way to amplify and promote non-white voices has been thrilling and invigorating. PP&R has long used equity language in its public documents, stating the importance of actively pursuing the hiring and elevation of BIPOC at all levels, but the management at CMC actually followed up that language with action.
Ms. King’s words today were a reminder of watching some leadership respond to the opportunity to grow the reach and expanse of the organizations beyond whiteness, beyond the protected slight and diminishing majority of the population. But on multiple occasions working with the public in PP&R, the outrage of white people toward racial sensitivity was held in greater regard than the safety of BIPOC employees.
In a layered city organization, the wheels of progress grind slowly, if at all. My expectations for change at PP&R have been low, and far exceeded by PP&R’s Community Music Center.
But when a smaller, mostly volunteer-run organization like Willamette Writers is challenged by white fragility, it has an opportunity to grow, to push beyond discomfort into true inclusion, but the choice must be conscious.
As I wrote about in this post, Willamette Writers hosted a conference whose stated intention was “inclusion.” Some attendees, when they observed other attendees using the current administration as a target of creative humor, made a stink about “politicization”, and later walked out on the Black woman’s keynote speech because her honesty about the difficulty of being Black in all-white spaces made them uncomfortable.
At that moment, Willamette Writers had a choice. They could placate the fragile white women who didn’t want to hear any complaints about their comfortable world, or they could take a protective stance around the BIPOC, and broadcast their intention to defend the right of BIPOC to speak about whatever they chose. Willamette Writers could have told the complaining white women that they were not welcome at the conference, and build some trust with BIPOC so they would know, without question, that they were safe, and wholly welcome. On that foundation, Willamette Writers could be part of building a truly diverse, multi-layered, textured, and intricate future, to include ALL people, not just the delicate white ones.
What Willamette Writers did instead was what so many cultural organizations have done; they chose the fragile white feelings over strength and progress. They soothed and calmed the angry white complainers, and told me — the one person who spoke publicly about the ugly event — to be quiet.
My blog has a very limited reach, with about 20 regular readers. My blog didn’t mention anyone by name — not Willamette Writers, not the attendees, not the name of the conference. But Willamette Writers told me to take down my blog, because they “welcome all writers.”
And then they fired me. It MIGHT have been unrelated. But it sure didn’t shut me up, did it?
But here’s the thing: if you welcome “all” writers including racists, then you are necessarily making BIPOC unsafe. You are putting at risk the very people you say you are striving to include.
Let’s go back to Ms. King’s statement;
“Let’s invite more Black people to the table,” implies ownership of the table and control of who is invited. Racism is about power.
“We welcome all writers (and that includes racist white people)” = “We welcome only white people.”
“We welcome all writers (and they can say whatever racist shit they want without consequence)” = “We acknowledge that BIPOC will never be comfortable or safe in our company.”
Ms. King spoke further on this very subject:
Discussing and protesting racism isn’t divisive. You know what’s divisive, dehumanizing and deadly?
Racism. And racism isn’t “I dislike you.” It’s “I’m going to assert power to facilitate circumstances to your detriment because I believe I’m superior and deserving of power.”
Willamette Writers asserted power to facilitate circumstances to the detriment of BIPOC. An argument could be made that the decision was made purely for financial reasons; telling some people they aren’t welcome because they are racists means you won’t get their conference registration money.
But the risk is much bigger than financial, and we’re seeing the fallout in this reckoning. Building an entire culture on fragile white feelings has resulted in an unstable and volatile society. White people have an inflated view of their own importance, and are fighting to retain their place in “control.” Thwarted white people, so accustomed to having their way, are throwing tantrums in grocery stores and bullying teenagers protesting the right of BIPOC to remain alive.
We are just beginning an ugly game of King of the Hill atop this ash heap we have created out of capitalism, Puritanism, gentility and the protection of the status quo.
Silencing people who speak out against racists is deeply ignorant and backward. We have a responsibility to build the society we want, and that means destroying structures that make people comfortable about the bad things they do. The #MeToo movement has exposed the wide prevalence of harassment and sexism because it gave women the power and strength in numbers to feel safe talking about the ugly things that had happened to us.
This moment in our history demands that we speak of the evils we have perpetuated through racism and silence. #BlackLivesMatter has shown in stunning clarity the fissures that run throughout our society, and it is time for white people to demand an end to racism in our white countrymen, and stop protecting racists from the consequences of their actions.
Every time you confront racism, you are intervening to prevent racism from growing. Racism, like sexism, homophobia, abelism, xenophobia, thrives on silence. On OUR silence. On white people being “too polite” to offend somebody. It relies on us not “getting involved.” Racism grows in the dark — flourishing, blossoming, spreading out tentacles every time we white people look away, or try not to “offend” white feelings.
We will never grow as a society — indeed, we deserve the self-destruction that is rapidly approaching — if we continue to be silent in the face of racism. Organizations that refuse to speak out publicly against racism and all its slithering, sneaky kin provide shelter under which thrives the insidious threat. Being ostracized from one organization sends them looking for another. Without public statements and overt actions against racism, there will always be “another” place for them to go.
It is up to all of us, one by one, loudly and with incontrovertible action, to refuse to allow racism to grow in our spaces.
And organizations that refuse this progress should, appropriately and with all haste, disappear in a puff of delicate, fragile white smoke.