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.