by Marilee Jolin
On Saturday night, I had the distinct privilege of attending Spectrum Dance Theatre’s production of A Rap on Race. The script is an adaptation of the 1970 recorded conversation between poet and author James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Baldwin (portrayed by local, Tony-award winning choreographer Donald Byrd) and Mead (played by actress Julie Briskman) sit on a raised platform discussing race in America – their tense and powerful conversation reflected in the evocative movements of the superb dancers below them.
Going in, I had no idea what to expect from this theatre experience. I knew little of the real lives of the two characters, having vaguely heard Mead’s name but woefully innocent of Baldwin’s literary legacy. Would I be lost without the requisite knowledge of these people? No. In fact, from the moment the two American legends opened their mouths I found myself in the midst of a very familiar and eerily modern-sounding conversation.
This familiarity was both illuminating and disturbing. I can’t help but ask with shock and disappointment: are we really at the same place in the discussion of race as in 1970? Have we not progressed in 46 years? Over the course of the 80-minute performance, Baldwin and Mead fall into a well-worn pattern with Baldwin trying to convey the exiling and intolerable experience of being black in the United States while Mead attempts to exonerate herself from blame and, moving quickly past Baldwin’s pain, focus the conversation on the future.
After a particularly intense exchange in which Mead dismisses Baldwin’s suffering by focusing on her internal beliefs, Byrd finally exclaims, “We’ve got to make some connection between what you believe and what I’ve endured!”
In hearing that sentence a light bulb went on for me. The use of those two words belief and experience illuminated a White person problem that has been plaguing me for months. I realized just how great a distance exists between what White people believe and what People of Color have endured. I realized how much White people sabotage opportunities for true connection by focusing on our beliefs and knowledge at the expense of the lived experience of People of Color.
The reality is this: People of Color have experienced racism and White people have not. Indeed, we cannot. The very nature of racism and power is that those in power cannot experience it. Which leaves us with only knowledge. And when it comes to racism, I am coming to believe more and more strongly, knowledge is not enough. Without personal experience, our knowledge is at best incomplete and at worst quite damaging.
This is a lame illustration, but bear with me. A few hours after the birth of my first daughter, exhausted and upset by her disinterest in breastfeeding, I asked to see a lactation specialist. To my utter shock, the person who showed up to help me learn how to breastfeed was a man! I flat-out refused – told him we were fine and didn’t need help. This was a lie. My daughter was not eating and I was scared. But I couldn’t stomach the idea of a man trying to help me with this uniquely female, decidedly intimate process. I’m sure he possessed plenty of helpful knowledge. But him knowing about breastfeeding was of no interest to me. I needed a connection with someone who had experienced it.
I don’t mean to imply in any way that breastfeeding and racism are the same or to conflate them. Still, the analogy resonates with me. The amount of distaste and anger I felt toward that male lactation specialist was infinitesimal compared to the fury People of Color must experience when White people show up to conversations about racism with our detached, abstract and rational knowledge.
By focusing on what we believe we are failing to make the connection Baldwin called for. To truly build this necessary connection, we must wrap our heads around the limits of knowledge and stop trying to share our opinions on racism with People of Color. We must recognize that our knowledge is deeply inferior to POC experience and our championing of such knowledge harms our relationships and alienates us from the people with whom we most need to connect.
What then can we do? Well, here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Attend an Undoing Racism
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond regularly conducts Undoing Racism trainings in Seattle and these trainings should be considered required coursework for all White people. The skilled facilitators at Undoing Racism trainings expertly draw on history, sociology, personal experience and the experiences of the participants to create a safe but challenging environment that enlightens while it humbles, plants seeds with immense potential and builds relationships for further work. If you care at all about issues of race this is an essential step.
- Shut off the Damn Internet and Meet Some Real Life People
Nothing can compare to personal interaction with other people, particularly when it comes to questions of race. I’m sure there are many different groups having these discussions near you: churches, libraries, schools. European Dissent is a great organization that offers opportunities for White people to meet and discuss race. Take those 15 minutes you might put toward crafting a Facebook comment and use them instead to invite someone to talk in person about such things.
- Don’t Offer Your Opinion
When in conversation about race and something gets your hackles up and you feel like you have to add something, try saying instead: “Tell me more about that.” And then really listen. Don’t interrupt. In fact, stay silent much longer than is comfortable. When in doubt say, “Tell me more.” You might be surprised what you learn – not only about racism but also about yourself.
I also recommend going to see Baldwin and Mead and the incredible Spectrum Dance Company work through these issues with compelling words and provocative movements. A Rap on Race plays through May 22nd at Seattle Repertory Theatre. You won’t regret it.
And, I promise, you won’t regret holding your opinions to yourself either. We all have a lot to learn. But when it comes to racism we White people have more to learn than others. And the only way to do it, the only way to build Baldwin’s meaningful connection, is to get over our own beliefs and listen, wholeheartedly, to People of Color’s experience.
Marilee Jolin is a regular columnist for the Emerald. She currently resides in Beacon Hill.