Racism. It’s a word that makes a lot of people squirm, even more than the word “sexism.”
It’s a four-letter word in a lot of ways that carries an entire alphabet of meaning, context and pain for a lot of people who’ve experienced it from without and within their race.
On Monday, the Phoenix Center for the Arts hosted its second Conversations on Race discussion, where approximately 20 community members discussed the dynamics of racism. The event was a precursor for an upcoming discussion that will solely focus on the issue of race in the downtown Phoenix arts.
The first conversation, held on Sept. 16, was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
Hosted by Joseph Benesh and Cole Reed (owner of greenHAUS in Phoenix), the second event focused on two questions: “What does racism mean to you?” and “When were you first aware of race?”
These two conversations sent the discussion group in a multitude of directions that were healthy, engaging and powerful at times. They ended up being the only questions tabled during the event and took up the entire two hours.
In regards to the first question, some people said that racism is about categorizing. One audience member said that different races are the product of racism, and that race was created by racists to distinguish people using valued judgments.
Other people said that it’s about privilege. The argument is that privileged people have the ability to promulgate racism, because they have power to do so with said privilege. Therefore, the notion that minorities can be racist toward other races is misguided. They can certainly be prejudiced, but racist? Not likely.
An especially intriguing situation occurred with an audience member who, with arms folded and shoulders hunched in a very defensive posture, mentioned that she didn’t identify with her white side as a biracial (Mexican and white). She felt like she was Mexican and not a white person. She later shared that her Mexican family persecuted her mother, who was white, for marrying her Hispanic father.
Next, the question went on to when people were first aware of race, and Angelica Gonzalez (owner of Nostra Style House) told a story about one Halloween when she was 6 and was trick-or-treating with her sister when they were refused candy by a white couple and told that they didn’t belong there.
The conversation took an interesting twist when ASU justice senior Rashaad Thomas, who is minoring in African-American studies, mentioned that there is also the dynamic of racism within races.
However, he himself doesn’t think that it’s possible for people to be racist against their own race.
“Logically I don’t think it is possible, for example, a black man to be racist against another black man,” Thomas said. “I think in cases like these racism is confused with prejudice, discrimination, classism, colorism, and/or homophobia. Semantics? Possibly.”
Reflecting on the event, Thomas felt a bit disappointed.
“Conversations like (this) are similar to holding hands and singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Afterward, we all leave and finish each others sentence, ‘See you,’ ‘Next time,’” Thomas said. “But, I would rather listen to Mahalia Jackson or watch the PBS Documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’ than continue to have the same conversations with the same people.”
Another community member, Tia Oso was originally tentative about attending the event but felt comfortable once it was under way.
“Personally, I was hesitant to go because I have experienced so many of these sessions where everyone acts all ‘kumbaya’ about race and doesn’t get real,” Oso said. “But it was set up differently and I felt safe to be direct and challenging with folks, because they made it a safe place to be honest.”
The next discussion takes place in November and will focus on the dynamic of racism within the arts community. Some of the questions that will be asked will include: “In the Downtown Arts, does race play a role?” “If so, what role/effect does it have? If there is an effect,” “What might be done to either change or support transformation on a community-wide scale?”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dgburns20