Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out
I went into my first Undoing Racism workshop filled with apprehension. I just knew I'd be subjugated to an entire weekend of why white people are fucked up and why Black people need help. I was certain that there would be no mention of the unspoken skin-coded hierarchy that taints the lives (either directly or indirectly) of every Black person in the United States...and across the globe. I was sure there would be no mention of class and how devastating poverty could be to one's mental and emotional existence. I didn't think this "Institute" couldn't begin to address what it it like to be kicked in the ass on a daily basis by Black and white people. Black people who thought I was beneath them because my skin was too dark, and my hair was too nappy, or white people who masked the fact that they thought I was beneath them by categorizing me as a "different type of Black."
Before I entered Antioch College that Fall, I had never heard of The People's Institute. I knew nothing about their work or their history. As the recipient of a service-oriented scholarship, I was required to attend their workshop. During the weeks before the training was to take place, I had my fill of The People's Institute. I thought it was a cult. The very name--The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond--seemed ominous to me. But the workshop started with the question: "Why are people poor?" Then we moved into how American systems and institutions help maintain poverty. They talked about Internalized Racial Oppression and Internalized Racial Superiority and I was amazed at how deeply these people touched the experiences of my American life experience. At certain points I felt like someone was skywriting in the sky, "Angele, you are not crazy!" It wasn't just my imagination that Black people and white people suffered serious consequences of dehumanization due to the conditioning of racism.
The trainers were a Black man named Michael Washington, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, and a white woman named Diana Dunn, the Administrative Director of The People's Institute. Her late husband Jim Dunn had co-founded the People's Institute in Louisiana, where they had both relocated to from Ohio in the 1970's. "Maybe these people do have some idea of the class and race dynamics of the South," I thought to myself. (The South is important in discussing American racism because it was the incubator for it; the South is where the scare of overt and covert racism can best be examined in an effort to understand racism across the nation.)
Growing up, I often heard people say I wasn't "Black enough," as if there was some hidden book of rules. I listened to heavy metal and I didn't talk much slang. I didn't talk slang because my mother would not allow it in the house. This is a prime example of the interworkings of Internalized Racial Oppression. My schoolmates criticized my language to uplift themselves. My mother placed boundaries on my speech, because she was teaching me survival. She was well aware of the eurocentric nature of this society and she knew that if I spoke in what is considered a conventionally Black dialect, I would be limited on many levels. Yet as she tried to give me a fighting chance, I was indirectly taught that conventional Black dialect was bad and that "the way white people talk" was good.
I learned a lot from that weekend. I went on to work with The People's Institute to get a better sense of what they stood for and I have been connected with them for two years now. In that time, my entire world view has been altered. Simple daily tasks like reading the newspaper take on a different meaning. I am aware that certain stories are reported to the public, whereas others are not because there is an unspoken order of importance placed on human lives. For example, when a person who has committed a criminal act is white he or she is referred to as a "man" or a "woman." Simple enough, but when a criminal act is committed by a person of color, the race of that person is invariably included in the newspaper's description.
I also now question everything I have ever learned in academic settings. As a child I was expected to know that Christopher Columbus discovered America. If I said anything contradictory to this myth I was punished by losing points on a test, hence I was conditioned not only to accept the racist model that Christophrer Columbus stands for, but I was also expected to celebrate him and the racist ideals of colonization.
My friendships have also been drastically altered. I can no longer tolerate friends who merely tolerate. If a white friend and I are in a store and he or she is being given eye contact or being spoken to while I am being ignored, I expect this person to be aware of what is going on. The disrespect payed to me is not his or her fault, and I place no expectations on my friend's actions, but I do expect them to understand why I feel degraded. The last thing people of color need is the burden of explaining why they are hurt or angered to a friend who hasn't a clue.
Intimate relationships are also different. Whomever I choose to be with has to have a racial analysis. I had to dump my last boyfriend because he said he saw me as "a woman, not a Black woman." To say this is to imply that racism can simply be washed away, wished away or ignored. The process will never be that easy. Anybody tho tells me he "see[s] no color" automatically raises red flag. If I choose to date a white man he has to be aware of his priveledges, in that he must realize we are not all treated the same.
A white person (almost) never has to wonder if the salesperson is ignoring him or her because of his or her race. A white person need not worry about being targeted by the police, nor the way he or she will be treated are treated by the justice system. White people have security in knowing that if a crime has been committed against them, their complaints will be heard. Therefore, any white man I commit to has to know that before he breathed his first breath he was expected to succeed, and that our society was set up to nurture him and foster his growth. Because of this, he is affirmed and reaffirmed every time he sees images of himself that reflect all aspects of life. He has to know that he is viewed as human first and foremost, whereas I am viewed as Black, then human (if I'm lucky).
Even with Black men or other men of color, I need to know we are on the same page. All people of color suffer from Internalized Racial Oppression, which may manifest in colorism (preferring light skin to dark skin or vice versa), a denial of one's heritage or ancestory, or classism tied to race, for example distinguishing poor Blacks from middle- or upper-class Blacks. If a Black man or a man of color in general does not see and recognize himself as part of his people across the diaspora, we can not hang.
Do I see myself as an activist? Not yet. For now, I view myself as a teacher of sorts. Anybody can be a teacher. All you need to know is how to communicate your point, and communication is broad as all hell. As for youth activism, I believe self reflection and improvement has to be the starting place. One should never be quick to point out short-comings in others, but should look into oneself for improvement. Time and patience are vital as well. Investigate things. Rushing to any conclusion is foolish. Look at all sides. People who are reflective and calm are the ones who command respect. Through respect and unity revolutions gain power. If everyone would work on themselves a little more and and respect others, even those who disrespect and dehumanize, humanity would move toward it's fullest potential. As Jim Dunn, of the People's Institute would put it, "To the degree that [we] see [others] as less than [human], to that degree [we] are out of touch with what it means to be human."
Angele Davenport is currently in her third year at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH
The People's Institue website will soon be up at http://www.peoplesinstitute.org/peoplesinstitute/