Story last updated at 11/20/2013 - 5:15 pm
Panelists at the University of Alaska Southeast's most recent Evening at Egan, along with around 150 audience members, took a step toward addressing and eliminating racism in the Juneau community Friday night.
"We're so anxious to talk, because these things build up inside of us," said facilitator Xh'unei Lance Twitchell. "The conversation doesn't start here and it doesn't end here. It's important it occurs throughout our community on a regular basis. Our overall goal is the elimination of racism. That is what we're committed to when we do this type of work."
The panel consisted of Rick Caulfield, UAS provost, Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Lights Church (which has hosted several discussions on race and plans to host more), M.K. MacNaughton, a Juneau artist who got her introduction to social and racial issues in Juneau while working at the AWARE Shelter, Ishmael Hope, a storyteller of Iñupiaq and Tlingit heritage who was born in Sitka and lives in Juneau, Sol Neely, UAS Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy, and Xh'unei Lance Twitchell, UAS Assistant Professor of Native Languages. Christy NaMee Eriksen, co-creator of the Woosh Kinaadeiyí Poetry Slam, was sick and unable to attend, but participants made frequent reference to her and her poetry, performing her short play "If Racism Was a Burning Kitchen," before beginning the discussion. (With her permission, we've printed that play after this story.)
What is Racism?
One of the problems is vocabulary itself - what participants called "a grammar of oppression," panelists said. Even simple, frequently used words are understood to mean different things. So, at the beginning of the discussion, Twitchell defined several terms. The one to which speakers made the most reference over the course of the panel was "racism."
It was defined as "any attitude, action, or institutional structure, which subordinates a person or group because of their race and has the existing power structures on its side."
As such, Twitchell and other panelists said there's no such thing as "reverse racism."
"It's impossible because there has never been a law here that kept people from white identity," he said.
But I'm not a Racist.
Panelists also spoke on conversations about defensive behavior. Those who accidentally offend want to respond right away, sometimes, instead of listening and trying to understand where the offended person is coming from.
Hope said he's seen instances of people who have offended others getting offended themselves.
"It's so easy for defensiveness and these charges of reverse racism... where the dominant culture not only wants to keep oppressing, they want to play the part of the oppressed, too," he said. "It's easy for people to make a mistake. It's totally OK, in a sense, to make a mistake. But when the mistake is pointed out, the reaction to that... that's what I look at."
Campbell shared a list of "characteristics of white allies" emerging out of a class he taught.
First on the list of characteristics: White allies cannot self-identify as such. In a world rife with labels conferred by the dominant (and white) power structure, it is people of color, he said, who have the right to call someone a "white ally" - or not.
"Just because we are trying to create more equality and opportunity does not mean that you are being attacked," Twitchell said.
"For every person in the room who is white, there is so much more that's happening than we are aware of," MacNaughton said.
She also referenced an infamous "Asian-themed" party earlier this year, and the ensuing community conversation about it.
"If you realize you've said or done something offensive... a behavior is separate from an identity. And I think that's where people sometimes go sideways with defensiveness," MacNaughton said. "So don't label yourself a racist, but just recognize that you've made a mistake."
What it means to be White
MacNaughton said there is a difference between recognizing blatant racism and recognizing privilege - like the "privilege," for instance, of never having been followed around a store, deemed suspicious because of one's race.
Campbell said it's hard for white people "to understand what it means to be raced."
White people, he said, tend to identify as "individuals" rather than as Caucasian. This, he said, is because white people have been socialized into believing that thinking of themselves as "white" is a bad thing. This way of thinking, he said, leads to reports of racism being perceived as attacks on character.
"If we could understand a collective sense of whiteness (and its inherent privilege) we could hear this," he said. "Racism isn't only a system of oppression, but it's a system of advantage that maintains the status quo... I believe that we can be competent contributors to the conversation, and competent partners in moving into an ending of racism."
How to Listen
Neely spoke on the way different languages and thought structures articulate understanding.
In English, he pointed out, "seeing" is understanding. People say "I see what you mean," for example.
In this instance, however, we need to listen, he said. And not just any listening - listening "born of a consciousness called hearing."
In Tlingit, he said, understanding is linked not just to hearing another, but to repeatedly hearing them.
Audience members participated in the second half of the discussion. One man, who said he was in his 80s, said things have changed for the better over the course of his life. He asked panel members if they were optimistic.
Twitchell said he was "cautiously" optimistic, citing suicide rates and crimes against Alaska Natives as things that make him less so.
"The systems are still architecturally in place that privilege others who are white," he said. "We're getting there, but the bigger thing for me is how do we protect our children right now."
"You're listening to me, and that's some progress. Absolutely, I'm optimistic, hopeful, but trying to directly address the problem," Hope said.
Neely mentioned academic and activist Cornel West's famous line, "I'm not an optimist, but I'm a prisoner of hope."
Not Color blind - Colorful
Panelists emphasized they don't want people to be "color blind," but rather, "colorful."
"Respect is what really matters," Caulfield said. "That comes from listening, understanding, and confronting what divides us."
Hope said people sometimes say "I don't see your color."
"I want you to see my color. I'm brown and I'm beautiful. See me as the specific culture, place and community that I came out of. See that, recognize that, and allow that space to be in your space," he said.
The next community discussion on the issue will be held at Northern Lights Church Wednesday, Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m.
"This is a discussion that's going to live in our community, so we invite you to be a part of it," Twitchell said.
IF RACISM WAS A BURNING KITCHEN
A Play in Three Acts by Christy NaMee Eriksen
ACT I: IF RACISM WAS A BURNING KITCHEN
An Asian and a Caucasian are standing in a kitchen. The kitchen is on fire.
Asian: Whoa. Is the kitchen on fire?
Caucasian: Are you calling me an arsonist?! I'm not an arsonist!
Asian: I am literally burning up. I'm pretty sure the kitchen is ON FIRE.
Caucasian: I didn't build this house! I just live here!
Asian: Let's leave and build a new house!
Caucasian: I'm not going anywhere. This is MY HOUSE.
ACT II: IF RACISM WAS A SINKING BOAT
An Asian and a Caucasian are on a boat. The Caucasian is holding a gun. The boat is sinking.
Asian: OMG the boat is sinking!
Caucasian: I didn't mean to sink it; I just shot a hole in the bottom!
Asian: Well now it's sinking!
Caucasian: Don't blame me! I love holes, I just wanted to look at one!
Asian: Don't shoot any more holes, man, or we're gonna die out here.
Caucasian: (sniffle) Do you think I'm racist?
ACT III: IF RACISM WAS THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
It's the apocalypse. An Asian and a Caucasian are standing on a street. Zombies are running all around the stage.
Asian: @%. Zombies.
Caucasian: What are we gonna do?
Asian: Well I think we should get out of here before they kill us.
Caucasian: How do you know they're gonna kill us?
Asian: Cause I've seen it, yo! They killed my parents!
Caucasian: Oh, that's terrible!
Asian: Yeah so let's get out of here.
Asian: So they don't kill us!
Caucasian: You think they're gonna kill us?? I know that guy, he's really cool.
Asian: I'm sure he's cool! But right now he's a zombie! And zombies kill people!
Caucasian: What? How do you know that?
Asian: I just told you!
Caucasian: I don't remember.
ACT IV: IF RACISM WAS THIS PLAY
Caucasian: I don't wanna be the Caucasian; can't I just be human?
Caucasian: That's racist.
Asian: Dude, the play is about a system of oppression.
Caucasian: Can I direct?
Link to this and more of NaMee's poems here: http://www.tsunamee.com/post/48106793897/day-103-if-racism-was-a-burning-kitchen.
Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.