I attended a seminar last weekend in my small town of Monroe, Washington, which had the purpose of finding ways to make our community more inclusive. It’s mighty white here in Monroe…but not really. We have a large Hispanic population and a small black population, a smattering of Muslims, a growing group from India and an occasional Asian. But our community events do not include people who aren’t white. It’s not intentional. But all of the events are planned by white people. So, music in the park centers around bands that appeal to old white men. No one’s going to suggest that we have a dance in the park that plays nothing but songs from James Baldwin’s Spotify list.
Now, I know that there is racism in this town. Politically, we’re divided, like everywhere else. Like everywhere else, the hate faction that has sprung from right-wing politics goes about carrying a bullhorn. I know that racism exists, that my brothers and sisters who are not white face dangers and challenges that I can only try to imagine. I know that I go about my life from a place of privilege, without even seeing how privilege manifests itself in my life. I am not blissful in my ignorance, though. I want to know, to understand what’s actually happening.
So, this seminar focused on how to build a more inclusive community. Then, one of the facilitators said something that hit me between the eyes. She said that the two black women in our community who normally would have co-facilitated this event were not there because they are too afraid to come to the YMCA building. This seminar, by definition, should have been safe. The YMCA should be a safe place. Yet they were too afraid to come and be with us.
I commented on this. I said that I wanted a better understanding of what these women were dealing with. Why would they feel unsafe in a room full of women (and one man) who had gathered with the express purpose of fostering inclusion. The white facilitator told me that she would be happy to take me aside, maybe for coffee, and explain it to me. But, she said that by even talking with them, I would further victimize them. By talking to them, I would become a perpetrator of their oppression.
I don’t know what to do with that. If my community is that toxic, and I’m not saying it isn’t, what the hell good would it do to have an Hispanic band at a community gathering? If attending a meeting with the purpose of discussing inclusion is not safe, if entering the YMCA, which publishes its core values as caring, respect, honesty, responsibility, and inclusiveness, is not safe, then why would anyone think that encouraging more ethnic vendors to set up in our farmer’s market is a solution?
I’ve heard many time that it is not any black person’s job to explain it to me. Indeed, the facilitator pointed out to me my ignorance in this regard, that by even speaking to these women who felt too traumatized to attend this meeting, I would further their battering.
I don’t know…maybe I am incredibly ignorant, but I think that, before throwing a party for people who don’t trust me, it might be a good idea for us to sit together and get to know one another better. It might be a good idea to ask our non-white neighbors what they would like. It’s like we’re changing the menu to appeal to people who would never come to our restaurant, for people whose refined palates we haven’t bothered to become familiar. It’s all well intentioned. But, as white people, is it our place to decide what would make them feel more included? If getting to know them better is considered abuse, then I’m at a loss. That’s where I get stuck.
So, I turn to the teachers who have spoken out. Again, I turn to books, movies and art. But I don’t understand how I can help effect change if I have to cross the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk with someone who finds me a threat because of my color. I came across this clip of James Baldwin this morning.