My first foray into attending a conference that focused on diversity, inclusion and race relations was on November 1st and 2nd, 2013, at the National Race Amity Conference sponsored by the National Center for Race Amity (NCRA) based at Wheelock College in Boston, MA.
I wouldn’t have known about the conference if it weren’t for Debby Kittredge Irving sending me an email notice a few weeks earlier. I met Debby several years ago at the Grub Street Writers’ Conference in Boston. In one of the workshop sessions, Debby had mentioned a book she was working on about race and her awakening to her own white privilege–the first time I had heard the term used, and I just knew I had to connect with her. By then I had been doing my own writing about what seemed to be my obsession with race relations.
As I thought about attending the conference, I recall wondering, and at times worrying about what the experience would be like. Having never attended a conference that dealt with the matter of race, I wondered, would white people be in the minority attendance-wise, as I seemed to have noted in photos of other diversity conferences I had scoped out on-line. Would white people be the “bad guys,” the tone I also sensed from some of the same conference sites’ programming? Would I get caught up in a conflicted conversation where I, the white woman who hates conflict, and is terrible at thinking on her feet, would end up in a puddle of tears? And, how would I, a person who always tries so hard to please everyone, and have everyone like her, deal with that?
Yet, thankfully, the bigger part of me who has taken on the desire to work on creating dialogue around race relations, inclusion, equity and justice in a small, personal way through my blog, and my interactions with others on a daily basis, I was able to quell my neurotic, guilt-ridden, prone to worrying self, and welcome with open arms and gratitude, the opportunity to attend the NCRA conference.
When I arrived to the pre-conference Gala event at the Norwood Sheraton Friday night, knowing nobody but Debby, I was glad to see her when she arrived during the cocktail hour. With her there, I could stop looking uncomfortably around at the appetizer table and the dressed-up attendees representing an even mix of races, ranging from college age to seniors, for someone to start talking to. I’m not good at breaking the ice. As soon as we greeted each other, Debby turned and said, “oh there’s Governor Winter of Mississippi–I heard him speak today at one of the student pre-conference sessions…he’s done great things…and they’ve opened an Institute for Race Reconciliation in his name there. I want to go talk to him.” And she was off, ushering me over with an arm wave.
I think she may have mentioned how old the former governor was–ninety, but I didn’t know who he was in terms of history. I only knew he and his wife were standing closely together, both slender figures, with generous, true smiles. Debby shared about her forthcoming book, Waking Up White, which deals with her journey to understand how her own socialization as a white person kept her racially ignorant, even when she thought she was working to “help” people of color. Governor Winter and his wife listened intently. Debby pulled me in closer, and Governor Winter turned to me and asked, “and, what do you do?” in his strong voice, his Southern accent coming through even in that short phrase.
In an instant the worry I had had on the drive up from Providence returned and made my face flush. I wondered how I, the woman who can express herself much more readily on paper than verbally, would talk about why I was there, what I did. I figured most people at the conference worked professionally in the field of diversity. Here I was, just someone who wrote stories about her obsession with wanting to connect with people of color, in particular, black people.
I leaned toward the Governor to help my timid voice carry over the din of conversation going on in the groups of event-goers all around us. I told him how I always cared so much about race relations and that I wrote about them on my blog. Even though the Governor is ninety-years old, I bet he knew what a blog was, but by the way he just nodded and smiled when I told him, I thought that my telling probably didn’t come across well–too jumbled, nervous, too softly-spoken, and I thought, well, not enough of a contribution. As always, that was me being self-critical, and I was able to quickly return to being grateful for my friend Debby including me in the conversation and for having the opportunity to meet someone who I’d later learn was instrumental in the civil rights movement in the state of Mississippi and beyond.
As the Gala continued into the evening with a dinner and awards presentation, I became awestruck with the work of the honorees, both black and white, who reflected the multi-racial audience. Among the honorees were people who were more familiar to the public eye like Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino, Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick, and filmmaker Ken Burns, honored for his work on films like the Central Park 5, Baseball, Jazz and Blackness: The Unforgivable Rise and Fall Of Jack Johnson.
There were honorees who I hadn’t before known, but should have, like Xernona Clayton, a civil rights leader and television broadcasting executive. The 4′ 11′ Clayton was a giant in terms of her effect during the civil rights movement. In her acceptance speech, Ms. Clayton, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed King’s words when she spoke of how she and many others were able to bring about change–in her case a very dramatic one that I’d later learn more about at the conference, saying, “..unless you change a man’s heart, you’ll never be able to regulate his behavior.”
In between awards, and the beautiful, heartfelt musical performances by cellist, Kendall Manseur, and NPR commentator and soprano songstress, Celeste Headley, I got to know my dinner table mates. I sat beside one of the conference presenters, Joe Atkins, PhD, of Colby College in Maine and several of his students. Joe, the Assistant Dean of Students at Colby, shared that he directs Campus Conversations on Race, a program that grew out of the National Center for Race Amity. Campus Conversations, now in its sixth year, trains students to run peer-led discussions on race in a college campus setting. It was inspiring to see his young students enthusiasm and engagement in their work, and I felt a void when Joe asked me, “Do you have a setting where you gather to talk about race?” His question gave me pause, and like the great De La Soul sang, I thought to myself, it’s just me, myself, and I…and…my blog. But, there I was that night, glad to be in a place where everyone was there for the same reason–because they cared about race relations, inclusion, and honoring diversity.
Each honoree that night was inspiring for the selfless work they did to advance unity across color lines: Dwight Allen, EdD for his work on education reform at both UMASS Amherst and Old Dominion University; Peggy McIntosh, PhD, of Wellesley University for her hugely important work on speaking out on white privilege; Colette Phillips, CEO of her own marketing and public relations firm and known for her ability to create cross-cultural and interracial social networks, and noted earlier, Governor William Winter who did groundbreaking work in education reform, including passing legislation to establish state-funded public kindergarten and improve public education. He was also noted for his awe-inspiring work on racial reconciliation in Mississippi, the home of “Ole Miss, ” the university infamous for the riots caused when James Meredith was the first African American student to try and desegregate the school in 1962.
I was taken in by each honorees’ tireless efforts standing up for what he or she believed in, but I must say, I was truly floored when Governor Luis Murillo, the former Afro-Colombian Governor of Choco, Colombia related the story of his unwavering work for the people of Choco, and all of Columbia, even in the face of great danger. Murillo, who for college studied abroad in Russia and received both Bachelors and Masters degrees in Engineering there, returned to Columbia and immediately went to work on sustainable and environmental development, and the creation of a Secretariat of Ethnic Affairs. Murillo was elected the first Afro-Columbian Governor of a Columbian Province in 1997 at age 31, and worked to advance the rights and well-being of the Afro-Columbian community, but shortly thereafter, the Afro-Columbian and native communities started to be massacred by Columbians of European descent in an attempt to reclaim their homeland.
Governor Murillo spoke calmly from the podium as he described his own kidnapping in 2000 by an armed group, and his subsequent release, after which he and his family fled to the United States for asylum. In the U.S., Murillo never stopped working on behalf of the rights of his homeland and for Afro-Columbians, and after he sat down with his family in 2010 to discuss whether they should return to Choco–by then his two sons were in their early 20’s and late teens, they made the decision to go back, and Murillo was re-elected to be Governor of Choco in 2011. I could feel the flesh on my arms bubble with goosebumps when Governor Murillo talked about having a heart-to-heart talk with his sons about them having to take care of his wife and their family should anything happen to him, and how his sons understood this, and were ready, too, like their father, to carry on and stand up for what they so strongly believed in–the rights of the Afro-Columbian people in Choco, and all of Columbia.
My mind was blown at how Governor Murillo, despite threats to his person, continues working toward peace and reconciliation in his native land and beyond. That night, his extreme example of devotion to a higher cause fueled my inspiration to get deeper into my own journey and work to connect across color lines. Even though just an hour before in my conversation with Governor Winter, I was minimizing “my little ol’ blog,” I had to admit I held higher aspirations for the tool it is and can continue to be in my quest to connect across color lines, learn how to be a better person in this world, and learn how to through my own personal storytelling, work toward the goals of this very conference, to establish race amity.
The National Center for Race Amity
I learned that the The National Center for Race Amity (NCRA) was established in January 2010, and that it is based at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. The organization was founded by William “Smitty” Smith, EdD, who earned his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has for decades addressed issues of race and diversity in his work with civic, philanthropic and religious organizations. Smith also founded and served as president and general manager of WNDS TV, a full power UHF station in Derry, New Hampshire, and later formed the film and multimedia company, ComTel Productions, Inc. which he headed for fourteen years. It would be Mr. Smith, who would greet and lead us in our first activity of the full-day NCRA conference.
It was the morning after the Gala and I was ready and eager to attend the day’s break-out workshops. But, before we would get started, as over a hundred adults, black, white, multi-racial, Asian, Arabic–from college students to middle-age and beyond, sat at circular tables in the large conference dining room, William H. “Smitty” Smith and Rebecca Shuster, director of Training of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, greeted us, and led us in an ice-breaker exercise called, Playing The Race Card.
In front of us on our tables each person had a white and a yellow index card. On the white card we were instructed to use six words to describe our relationship with our own race. On the yellow card we were to use no more than twelve words to think of a positive experience in connection with another person of a different race. We then, as instructed,went around the table and each one of us read and explained our cards. I listened as a middle-aged white man who grew up in the south spoke about how his parents raised him to see black people as equal, and to have friendships with black families, but that living in a segregated community with many people who excluded and held racist attitudes towards blacks, made for a tense paradoxical upbringing. A young bi-racial assistant professor at a college in Vermont spoke of her difficulty in finding her place, her identity, her belonging because she is neither solely white nor black.
A black man from Hartford, Connecticut who does work in the field of diversity and advancing equity, read off his list of six words and then the explanation of each one, and as he did, I found myself absorbed into the power of how he conveyed his experience of not being seen for who he was…”I’ll never be seen as just me, as who I am, because people can’t see past my skin color… when they look at me they will always see race first, and will identify me first by my race, instead of simply who I am as me…”
I worried about what the reactions would be when I read my cards that said, “I’m white but want to connect.” and the other that said how I am grateful to connect with others through my blog on race relations. I realized the worry came because I couldn’t escape seeing how my whiteness was something I couldn’t identify any strong feeling around, or recount negative experiences I’ve faced in my life for being white. The only thing that came to surface, is that my being white has afforded me so many privileges that people of color have had to measure themselves against to get the same opportunities or treatment. I thought that staring me in the face would be terrifying, and that I had to feel sheepish reading that I was white, but wanted to connect in a group of people at my table made up of white, black and bi-racial women and men. That others might look at me in disdain–for what I wasn’t sure–for stating that I’m white, and not finding other ways to define myself? For bringing up the “elephant in the room,” white privilege?
Thankfully, I would learn right there from the support emanating around that breakfast table, and as the day went on, that race amity is not about feeling guilt or shame. It’s not about anger and blame. Though these feelings will come up for all of us when we meet to think and talk about race, I would come to find out that the purpose for the Race Amity Conference was as our second index card directed us to reflect on: the positive ways that the races come together to support one another–the moving on from anger and guilt to peaceful resolutions and understandings of one another.
The Workshop Sessions
There were a wide variety of offerings of breakout sessions ranging from race and education, race in the movies, the work of race amity, and the perspective of white privilege, led by many interesting, high-profile presenters.
While I wished I could attend more than were possible in the four sessions held throughout the day, I found myself, most likely due to my growing up during the end of the civil rights era, drawn to two out of four workshops centered around work done during that time. The first session I chose was, The Work Continues, led by Xernona Clayton.
I could have sat and listened to Ms. Clayton speak all day long. Petite, beautiful in spirit and outwardly, and dressed with style–from her sequined zebra striped blouse to the gold band that circled her long, dark hair tied up in a bun, she seemed as self-assured as she was down-to-earth.
Ms. Clayton started off speaking of her disappointment that people of today think that black people should be happy that we have a black President. She began, “…as if that’s all “we ever wanted,” was “one of us” in office. No, we want fairness, equity, and justice, not who is in office. It was disappointing that people thought black people were all set now with President Obama in office–that people thought equity lie in such shallow waters.”
I could have heard her tell the tale over and over of what happened during her leadership during the time period she worked on the Model Cities Program in Atlanta. The program, a piece of President Johnson’s war on poverty, strove to develop urban leaders to work within their localities to bring about positive local change. Xernona heard that the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia, was a resident in her neighborhood catchment area, and she wondered how he might try to intervene in her work. She wondered if she’d even know who he was if he were to attend her community meetings since no one knew what he looked like from underneath his hood. Yet, Xernona, would find out she guessed right, when she shook hands with attendees after the first meeting and there was one white man, who, and she demonstrated this with a member of our workshop, he “did one of those handshakes,” and she gently offered just her fingertips to our attendee’s extended hand, and then quickly pulled them away.
Clayton Craig would appear in Xernona’s office every day for a year-and-a-half to talk her out of the work she was trying to do to help improve the quality of neighborhood life. How Craig would every day sit across from Xernona and ask her why she was bothering to even try. “You know how all black people are lazy, how they smell, you know what I’m talking about.” Though she didn’t show it at the time, she told us that morning that out of everything Craig said to her, those words, those thoughts, hurt her the most.
I wondered how she could sit across from this man knowing his position with the KKK, but at the same time as I listened, I could absolutely see that Xernona wasn’t afraid of anyone, and that her values and standing up for what she believed in were far more important than letting any fear of a human being who was getting in the way of her and her community’s rights, and a people’s human rights, stop her efforts. But, Xernona didn’t use scare tactics; she used reasoning. Persistent, fearless, reasoning.
And, after a year-and-a-half of reasoning, Craig actually denounced the KKK and stepped down from his role in the party. He credited Xernona with his change of heart. True to what Martin Luther King had said to her and others “Until you change a man’s heart, you’ll never be able to change his behavior,” Xernona Clayton changed a heart, and helped to change the world. She continues to model the ideal that we need to keep working to make the world a better place when it comes to equity, fairness and justice for all people of all races. And, the work continues.
Xernona also continues to honor the positive contributions of black women, men and youth through her annual Trumpet Awards and Foundation, based in Atlanta. Xernona sees that there is still much work to be done when it comes to equity and inclusion, and the awards are a way to show faces of color, when she still is too often disheartened when traveling and reading the local newspaper and magazines, and seeing that there are no faces that look like hers in the society or other pages.
After attending Xernona’s workshop, I had the great pleasure to sit in on Founding Executive Director of the National Race Amity Center, William “Smitty” Smith’s workshop on RADD: Race Amity Dialogue and Devotions, a model he and others created that uses meetings among lay people from one’s very own neighborhood and greater community to talk about race. The devotions refer to how they’ve decided to open each meeting with a faith-based prayer, poem or piece of music to set a spiritual tone of peace and amity before the discussion begins.
“Smitty” as he was called throughout the weekend, a tall man with a big presence, radiated warmth and calm, as he shared about the first time he hosted a dialogue on race in his neighborhood. He humbly told of how he had twelve invitations made out to his neighbors, and didn’t have a problem putting most of them in the mailboxes of his friends and acquaintances, but hesitated with a few of his neighbors. One was a white man, who “Smitty” always had friendly chats with, yet “Smitty” realized they had never had a conversation about race, and he worried about what the man would think. He joked about how his wife had to really push him to put the envelopes in the mailboxes since the talk was in two days. He did, and out of twelve invites, nine came, two said they’d love to but had other plans, and only one person didn’t answer. This let “Smitty” know that, “people do want to talk about race.”
What “Smitty” noted to be central to the idea of race amity and race amity dialogues is that the talks begin with each person sharing their best experience in terms of race that you can share; your own best personal story. “When you start with the positive,” Smitty said, “there is no enditement beforehand. You get rid of the blame grievance cycle that tends to happen when conversations on race are held.”
At this point in the workshop, a women attending asked if the emphasis is on the positive only, will people feel like the difficulties of race relations have to be brushed aside. “Smitty” replied that no, the point is to start with amity, and then the difficult stuff comes, too. He went on to say that there have been many deep, difficult conversations–honest, personal stories that have been shared and talked through, and that he believes that starting in a positive place allows that to happen in a constructive way.
Learning about Race Amity Dialogue and Devotions made me think back to Joe Atkins of Campus Conversations at Colby College’s question at the gala,”do you have a space where you talk about race?” Participating in a RADD group would be a place for me to connect with others and get into deep conversations on race in a way that feels both welcoming and productive.
After a powerful lunch-hour panel with some of the conference presenters and moderator, NPR guest host and news commentator, Celeste Headley, speaking on questions about young people’s role in standing up for equity, white privilege, and the state of race relations today, I headed to my next workshop entitled The Race Story Re-write Project.
The Race Story Re-write Project asks us to re-write our own personal race stories–the ones we tell ourselves based on our upbringing, our experiences with others, the stories that are often filled with hopelessness, despair, conflict. It then calls for us to move to a more spiritual adult mindset in order to create an inclusive environment where we can re-write our own, more positive, hopeful personal race narrative. The road to this is to when we tap into virtues like compassion, honesty, detachment, humility, honesty, tactfulness and trust to connect with our mature, higher spiritual selves and leave our materialistic, adolescent conflict-ridden selves out of the story.
In their workshop, author of Seeing Heaven In The Faces of Black Men, Tod Ewing, and married couple, Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz, authors of Longing: Stories of Racial Healing, have partnered to share with others their work on healing the historically dominant/subordinate relationship of black/white relations.
After sharing their mission and background with us, they asked us to break out into small groups and re-write our own personal race stories. We were asked to first claim which side we saw ourselves on. As a white person, I knew I had to claim the dominant side, because I have benefited all my life from having white skin, despite being a woman, and Jewish.
Prior to the Race Story Rewrite workshop, I had begun to pick up that the Race Amity Conference would be providing us with a tool-kit of tools to use to have our own deeper dialogues about race once we left the conference, as well as the opportunity to listen to the presenters’ takes on the state-of-affair of race today, but not to necessarily enter into personal discussions about race ourselves.
Yet, in this workshop we were then asked to share a story, to have a personal discussion on race as it has impacted us in our personal lives. Tod Ewing recommended we not choose a story too deep and raw since we would not be doing the long-term work required for deeper healing. We were asked to think of a time when we had an experience with race with another person that was conflicted, and one in which we responded, perhaps, not from our higher selves, but with our baggage, our reactive, “adolescent” selves.
In my group of four, there were three young woman students, one white, one bi-racial, and one of Hispanic descent who was adopted by a white family. I was voted to go first with my story. I joked that it was because I was oldest. Trying to think fast of what story I should share, I landed on telling about a blog post I wrote that touched on the relationships between Blacks and Jews over time, of our shared knowing of oppression, of positive times working together during the civil rights era, as well as times of tension, as in between the Hasidic and Black community of Crown Heights, New York. I shared how I received a response by a black man who was angered by my comparison of oppressions suffered by Blacks and Jews, saying that Jews have not suffered the oppression of hundreds of years of slavery, nor the systems of institutionalized racism, and that despite being Jewish, I would always be seen as white, and therefore benefit in society from my whiteness.
In my group I shared that at the time, I felt guilty for thinking I’d been insensitive, and that I hadn’t meant to compare Jews to Blacks in terms of level of oppression. I remember feeling like I didn’t want to feel like I had gotten something wrong–like, couldn’t this person, an acquaintance of mine realize that I meant well? I reached for the slip of named virtues that our workshop presenters had given us, to see what I could have tapped into to respond to my blog commenter. Detachment, Honesty and Humility were the virtues I chose. If I could detach from always taking a person’s response to my statements personally and see the greater goal of striving towards unity through honest discussions about race, and if I could show humility and not always have to be right, or the good white person with good intentions, then I could see how this could have brought about a more positive, mutual understanding of one another’s feelings, and motivations for being heard.
The other young women, who were kind in their supportive feedback to me, then shared their stories. The student next to me began to share about her experience growing up in Florida. As bi-racial, she found it difficult to be accepted by black girls or white girls in her school or neighborhood, and she wasn’t sure how she would fit in at her first year at a New England college, for her, at Brandeis University, a school with an over 90% Jewish student population, and a small percentage of black students. She found herself one evening at her dormitory, sitting in a circle of all white friends talking about where they were from. When this young woman explained what it was like growing up bi-racial in Florida, one of the other students shared that she was also from Florida and that she never talked to or had any girlfriends that were black. When the woman in my group told the girl something to the effect of, “Well, you’re talking with me now,” the girl replied, “yeah, but you’re pretty…” and then went on as if there was nothing out-of-place about her statement.
The young woman in our group shared that she would have tapped into the virtues of Assertiveness and Courage to let the young woman in her group know how her statement made her feel.
In closure, participants in the Race Story Rewrite Project, seemed to agree that taking a step back, letting go of the suspicions and baggage we carry with us when we talk with another person about race, or even simply talking with another person of another race that on the surface is not even about race, that we can instead of using the script of the race story that has built itself into our individual and collective psyches, we can tap into our higher spiritual selves, and the virtues of that higher self, and indeed, re-write our race stories, for the better.
As I debated which final workshop session to attend, whether it would be more productive to be future-oriented, or to take a step back into the past to civil rights era wrongs that are being righted with Visioning 2050 or Mississippi Learnings: Bridging the Divide in “Sippi,” I chose the latter. Again, I think because I grew up during the civil rights era, I am drawn to that story, that place in time.
It was thrilling for me to sit with Susan Glisson, PhD, Executive Director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and have her take all of us on the journey of the deep conversations and healing work that she, students, and community members are doing to as she says, “create spaces where wisdom can emerge, and we can have honest conversations about race, where healing can take place.”
Ms. Glisson shared how in the late 1990’s, students started a grassroots movement on campus at “Ole Miss,” (as mentioned earlier, the university notorious for its role in trying to bar James Meredith from attending and desegregating the school in 1962), to have overt conversations about race since they had never taken place previously, and if they had, had been through Town Hall or other politically orchestrated avenues, and had always been “polite narratives.”
The highly successful conversations revealed that students at “Ole Miss” were passionate about creating conversations on campus abut race, and were even lauded by the New York Times for having the best conversations on race at the time President Clinton was implementing his National Discussions on Race.
Out of this work, Governor Winter came to the university and asked to have this work institutionalized, and in 1999, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation was born. I sat fixated as Ms. Glisson shared with us the valuable work she and the Institute are doing to reconcile the deep wounds of a painful race history in Mississippi. I admired the way in which the center operates–to only go to communities where they’ve been invited, to go to places that will make a two-year commitment to the process of having conversations and the healing process. I appreciated Ms. Glisson saying that she wants those she works with to understand that she is “not saving anyone from anything..” and that the transformation comes from the community members themselves doing the hard work it takes to bring about racial healing and reconciliation.
An exhaustive list of good work being done through the center including assisting the strong community leaders in Rome, MS, to find equity and fight for their rights to a proper sewer system in their town, to hosting a ceremony of apology to James Meredith, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the horrible events surrounding his courage to desegregate the university as its first black student, by implementing and sharing an oral history project that interviewed over 40 individuals from that time period.
There was also the work in Neshoba County, which Ms. Glisson admitted she was afraid to go to because of her perceptions of the people living there, the place where three young civil rights workers from up North, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schurman, traveling south to aid in registering black voters, were murdered in 1964.
Ms. Glisson was relieved to meet good leaders in Neshoba, and through some very difficult conversations and working toward understanding of one another’s perspectives, were able to do some healing work that included the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, a former KKK member who was involved in the murders. Yet, Glisson didn’t see that victory as the be all, end all, saying, “if all we do is put an 80 year-old man in jail and think we’re done, we’ve failed.”
She and the center continue to carry on the hard, yet hopeful and inspirational work of racial reconciliation through student and community work that includes University training of students, faculty and administrative staff on the history of the school’s diversity, and to get across the clear message that “it is not okay to (hold on to old stereotypes and) be racist at “Ole Miss.”
At the session’s end, Governor Winter got up and spoke to us, in his powerful, still got the fight in him voice, on how while we have made so much progress, and he is extremely proud of the progress made through the work that Ms. Glisson and the Center has done, that there is still work to be done, and that each one of us can play an important part in our own communities to take on that work.
Dizzy with all that I took in during the conference day, and delighted with the connections I had made with others in workshop sessions and our in-between breaks, all of us came together once more in the conference dining room for closing remarks,and the whirlwind presentation on race bias from Howard Ross, a business consultant and recognized thought leader on the topic of exploring and addressing unconscious bias.
Ross’s quick-paced, enthusiastic talk and visual presentation was mind-blowing in its show of how our brains and cognitive development and functioning, coupled with our personal upbringings and messages we receive from society, hold onto unconscious biases. According to Ross and his studies based on neuroscience and cognitive behavior, “more and more we are discovering that most of these decisions are not made by bad people with bad attitudes, but rather by well-intended people who have no idea about the unconscious process that they use to make decisions about people who are different from them.”
As someone, who is passionate about psychology and works in the field as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital, as well as someone who is passionate about race relations, bias and inclusion, it was fascinating to see through Ross’s presentation, the ways all of us, none of us excluded, hold onto our own personal unconscious biases, and how that impacts the way we relate to, and judge others, and make decisions based on those biases.
I was also very moved by screens Ross displayed toward the end of his presentation that seemed to tie the theme of Race Amity together so appropriately as we ended our day. Here we looked on as we saw how great leaders of color, throughout time had worked together with white leaders, how they had inspired and mentored one another, and collaborated to carry out great works to advance equity, justice and inclusion among people of color and white people–Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Lou Hamer, and on and on. I could now see how the Amity Center’s Founding Director, William “Smitty” Smith, was trying to convey and instill in all of us–a message of unity and hope–that we all can work together in positivity to advance the greater goal of race amity. It’s been happening for quite some time as referenced in the book that Smith lauds, A Closer Kinship by Anna-Lisa Cox, about the people of Covert Michigan, who beginning in the 1860’s, and for decades later, created a completely integrated town that shared wealth, power and kinship equally between black and white people, keeping secrets and breaking laws to do so. All of us at the conference can do well to focus on what we are all capable of, while not forgetting our pasts, as Tod Ewing reminded us in the Race Story Rewrite Project workshop, but by being able to forgive in terms of the baggage we carry with us, and look to our virtuous higher selves, to keep advancing the work of race amity.
As the conference wrapped up, my mind and heart was full. As I said good-bye to Joe Atkins and his vivacious students after a group photo, and looked for my friend Debby Irving to say good-bye to, I knew I would need time to process my experience at the conference.
When I arrived home an hour later and stood in my kitchen preparing dinner, I stopped myself for a moment at the sink and held onto the counter. I felt my eyes fill with tears. I realized I was awestruck, and extremely grateful that I got to meet and talk with Xernona Clayton and William Winter, two icons of the civil rights era, an era that planted the seed in me to know right from wrong when it comes to treating someone unjustly because of the color of their skin, and set me on my course to always care to connect with others different from me, and to put care and effort into nurturing such positive connections. I was also honored and grateful to come to learn of so many people doing important, inspirational work on diversity and inclusion, and to meet the many warm, interesting and concerned individuals who attended the conference.
I look forward to keeping up with the great work that the National Center for Race Amity is doing to bring people together to move forward with positive conversations on race relations, and, to next year’s conference.
To learn more about NCRA, visit their website at www.raceamity.org.
Also, be on the look out for the Center’s upcoming documentary to be aired on Public Television in 2014, An American Story: Race Amity And The Other Tradition.