Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

Raising a Voice for Anti-Racism Work

By on November 21, 2018

What does a community college campus do when a racial slur is used in a meeting? This occurred at my place of employment, and for the past week, we have come face-to-face with the structural racism that exists on my campus and within American society.

These are troubling and challenging times we are experiencing. To directly experience structural racism on our campus, immediately on the heals an amazing Facing Race conference, has forced me to apply what I have learned right away. A racial slur was said out loud during a Gender Equity meeting in which I was present. That experience has solidified how little our society has the fundamental framework to engage and navigate anti-racism work. I include myself in that “society” as I sat quietly as the n-word was said out loud into the room. And again, remained silent by not immediately reaching out to black colleague whom I had just spent a few days in Detroit.

As a white American, I don’t want to let fear, shame, and embarrassment prevent me from engaging in the work of justice and equity. Doing the work will include making mistakes. We need to own our mistakes, name the injustice, and most importantly, listen. Listen to understand. And then speak up. 

Our colleagues who are people of color have been injured and have been disregarded for their lived experiences on this campus. Time and time again they have not been heard because we (collectively) don’t know how to listen and seek to understand. I have watched myself tune out when a voice is raised or an “angry” voice is made by a person of color as I allow “civility” to block out centuries of abuse and injustice. As a colleague shared with me recently, “We forget that all white people are associated with racism and systemic white supremacy. We all support a culture of racism in that we have all been socialized into it, benefit from it, and are complicit in supporting systems that keep it in place.” And I’ve learned that left-wing, progressive people (myself included) often have the hardest time seeing our own racism. This last year I read two books that deeply influenced my thinking around this topic – What Does it Mean to be White? and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, both by Robin DiAngelo. I highly recommend both these titles.

White Fragility
Source: goodmenproject.com

I’ve found this work to be challenging and painful. It’s very easy to feel hurt and defensive when I perceive an attack on my character or my intention. At times, I can’t even see the impact of my words or actions until someone says something. What I’m learning to do is to listen and simply say thank you. These are gifts being offered by my colleagues to help me break down inherent racism and white supremacy. And to take responsibility to speak up. I don’t have the answers, but I do know what practices have helped me cultivate trusted and respected relationships with people of color.

This anti-racism and equity work must be extended to the board of trustees, the faculty, the staff, the administrators, and the students. We can take a deep dive into structural racism and gender inequality and forge a path forward that amplifies and channels those voices that have not been heard. Let’s raise up these voices so all might hear.

3 comments on “Raising a Voice for Anti-Racism Work

  1. Kenley, thank you for your honesty in telling about your experience. I am curious about what happened after that!

    This statement gave me pause for thought:
    “As a colleague shared with me recently, “We forget that all white people are associated with racism and systemic white supremacy. We all support a culture of racism in that we have all been socialized into it, benefit from it, and are complicit in supporting systems that keep it in place.” And I’ve learned that left-wing, progressive people (myself included) often have the hardest time seeing our own racism.”

    It is important to see how we participate in racism and systemic white supremacy, but it is also important to see how ANYONE is injured when he/she is lumped together/stereotyped. As an example, I am Jewish, so what should my relationship with German people be? I would hope that I would treat each German person I met as an individual and not as one of the people who killed my great aunt.

    I remembered hearing (a few years ago) from a klezmer musician after she had been on tour in Europe, how popular klezmer music was in Germany and Eastern Europe. It was only then, that I really understood how offended the indigenous people of this continent are when people of European descent become aficionados of native culture: “They killed as many as they could of us and now they think our culture is great!?” But on the other hand, I do not want to condemn ANY individual for the harmful attitudes of his/her group. So while I want to know how I personally have bought into white supremacy, I am uncomfortable with feeling like I need to feel guilty for the actions of other white people. I would not berate a young German for the actions of his family during the Third Reich, but I would condemn current anti-Semitism or patronizing attitudes. Doth the lady protest too much? Tell me. I will listen.

  2. Thank you for the question Bev and for touching on a very common counter statement to the one that I offered. In no place in my comments did I mention guilt or that we should feel guilt. Nor did I mean to suggest that we be responsible for others actions. But we should be responsible for our collective action (or inaction).

    What is important to recognize is that a white person (or has the appearance of being white) does benefit in American simply for being white. Collectively we allow racism and white supremacy to continue and we do benefit from that collective culture and socialization. Take almost any example – wealth, home ownership, education, health, employment, incarceration, entertainment – and in almost all cases a white person is at a significantly different place than a black person. Of course, this in of itself does beg the question about why the white person is the place to aspire toward. We should be cautious in those waters as well.

    While what occurred in Germany during WWII was atrocious and the Germans (and our Jewish family) continue to suffer for that, the circumstances of the black person in America is completely different. A black person was considered property, forcibly taken from their homes, forcibly separated from their families. And they were legally discriminated against well into the 20th century (in our lifetimes). A black person continues to be disenfranchised (in our most recent election!), unable to benefit from the New Deal, and multi-generational wealth.

    As Ijeoma Oluo said, there is no middle ground between racism and justice. And a Roy L. Brooks said, it makes no sense to consider a tender of apology a true apology while the atrocity is raging on. And so, I am a true believer in reparations and atonement.

  3. Thank you for responding. I have no quarrel with what you just said. Black people (and all “people of color”) need to “be made whole again” – as in the legal term for correcting a wrong (not to say that anyone is less than whole). I agree that it is very hard to see the injustice when we are fish who don’t see the water in which we are swimming. We do need to see that and we do need to change the situation. I was astonished at the intense negative reaction amongst a lot of Republicans when Obama was elected, and can only attribute a lot of it to racism. I am glad there are many groups working to create understanding and cohesiveness amongst groups from different backgrounds and think that these efforts will be successful as long as people are willing to listen to each other.

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