A path to progress on race?
- Published: November 9, 2020
Facing Race: This is fourth in a series on the impacts of racism in Yellow Springs and local anti-racist efforts and approaches.
Other articles in this series
Along with much of the country, Yellow Springs has grappled with racism during the summer of 2020.
Black villagers and allies are raising awareness of problems local and national, and issuing strong calls for change. Some white villagers are meanwhile confronting their own complicity in systemic racism, and seeking to become actively anti-racist. And local institutions are exploring how to live up to their stated values of diversity, equity and justice.
For 14 straight weeks, a group of mostly Black local youth organizers have challenged villagers to see their role in perpetuating racist policies and commit to personal and political action. During the weekly marches that followed, together they have raised their voices and shut down traffic to keep attention on ongoing police brutality across the country against Black people and to affirm that Black lives do, indeed, matter.
The Yellow Springs school district, meanwhile, is setting up an equity team to address concerns that teachers and staff raised during a recent all staff meeting on the issue. Concerns raised included ongoing discrimination against students of color and the racial achievement gap in the schools. And the Village of Yellow Springs declared racism a public health crisis in June and recently created a new collaborative committee to advance anti-racist polices and criminal justice reforms.
But in spite of shows of solidarity from villagers and various institutional promises, the local conversation around race and racism has also been, at times, fraught. A painful breakdown in communication last month between Village officials and a group of young, mostly Black, anti-racism demonstrators illuminated the difficulties in dialogue across, and about, race.
All over this mostly white village, renewed commitments to anti-racism have been made. But what exactly does anti-racist action look like? What gets in the way of change, specifically for a progressive town? And what barriers arise when white people are challenged to take action against racism? This week the News explores these questions with Black and white villagers who have been actively engaged in local conversations about racism.
The challenge of a ‘progressive’ town
Addressing racism in a town that prides itself on its progressivism is a unique challenge, those interviewed said.
Yellow Springs may have historically afforded opportunities to people of color which they were denied in nearby communities. And it may have had significant Black leadership from the 1950s through the ’80s. But times have changed. The local Black population dropped from 30% in 1970 to just 12% by 2010, and with it Black representation throughout the community. Leadership in the Village government, the local school system and businesses became increasingly white.
Historian Kevin McGruder, who is Black, noted the trend when he moved to town about a decade ago.
“When I look at the past, Black people were participating on all levels. But now not as much,” he said.
McGruder, Antioch College’s vice president of academic affairs, believes that the decline in Black leadership fell even more quickly than its population. But when McGruder raised that concern to a mostly white group, they asked him to show how the decline in the local Black population is actually a problem for the village.
For McGruder, that reflected an often “unstated notion” white people have that the advancement of people of color has to come at their expense.
“There is a resentment of Black success because of a feeling of a threat,” he said. “But we can shift that to a perspective that we all succeed when people of color succeed, rather than not.”
Such questions are also symptomatic of a larger trend of the village resting on its laurels rather than rooting out racism where it still resides. For instance, when people of color in Yellow Springs express grievances, McGruder has noticed, the response from some villagers is “you should be glad you aren’t somewhere else.” he said.
“That isn’t to say that a lot hasn’t happened, but there are legitimate concerns to have addressed,” McGruder said. “And we can always do better.”
Instead, Yellow Springs’ past could be re-framed as an asset to build upon, McGruder believes.
“Because Yellow Springs has that history, if anywhere is going to be anti-racist, we can do it here rather than other places where it’s an uphill battle,” he said.
Writer Mori Rothman-Zecher, who grew up in the village and is white, also noted the challenge of the town’s progressive credentials, pointing to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement on the “danger of complicit white liberals.” He worries that recent statements from local institutions affirming solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement may actually be counterproductive.
“Sometimes we say the right things as a way to be immune from critique, as not needing to change,” he said.
Although village leaders sometimes point to nearby communities as more racist than the village, what’s needed is internal scrutiny, Rothman-Zecher believes.
“We can say it’s better that we are Yellow Springs and not Xenia, but only if these words are accompanying daily, uncomfortable actions,” Rothman-Zecher said. “If it’s just words you could make the case that it’s not better, it’s just the same.”
Local educator and media producer Jocelyn Robinson, who is Black, sees a similar dynamic in Yellow Springs. Conversations about racism, she said, can be complicated in a place that “prides itself on its tolerance when it is, in practice, not tolerant
Robinson, who grew up in Yellow Springs during the civil rights movement, also sees how the village relies on its image as a progressive community at the expense of making further progress. But while she said she doesn’t see Yellow Springs as “the center of progressivism in the whole wide world,” she also thinks it’s important for younger activists to remember how far the village has come.
Compared with the generation of activists who desegregated downtown from the 1940s through the ’60s, “young people don’t have the same understanding of what life was like before and don’t realize how much has changed,” she said.
“I think there is some ageism and discounting of experience,” Robinson said. “That’s unfortunate because the truth is we’re all in this together.”
The Village of Yellow Springs’ sixth, and final, value reads: “Intentionally promote anti-racism, inclusion, equity and accessibility through all policies, procedures and processes.” And in its June declaration that racism is a local public health crisis, Council vowed to “prioritize implementation of anti-racist policies and take other intentional actions to address systemic racism.”
But what does it mean to be anti-racist? According to Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” the term describes acting aggressively against racism. Although some may claim to be “not racist,” allowing racial inequalities to persist is actually racist, while confronting racial inequalities is anti-racist, he explains.
For McGruder, the term anti-racism challenges people to understand that because racism is so ingrained in our culture, institutions, laws and practices, neutrality is not possible in the face of it.
“Even though we may think we are well intentioned, if we are neutral, the momentum on racism, on which this country was founded, continues to do what racism does, which is hold down people of color,” he said.
Dismantling racism is essential if we want to live in a world where it doesn’t exist, added McGruder. And if it is listed as a Village value, then action is needed to live up to those values, he said.
“There have to be actions at different levels in the Village,” he said. “How do we see racism in hiring practices, in the way people are managed, in how people are engaged in their everyday work at the Village?”
Robinson says anti-racism involves “dismantling structural impediments to equality,” work that every institution needs to do for itself. It’s not easy, and involves an organization “examining itself from the inside out.”
“It takes an institutional commitment, it takes hard work, it takes self-examination,” she said. “It takes looking in the mirror and maybe seeing things that make you uncomfortable, embarrassed about, and being honest about it.”
For local change to occur, given the current demographics of Yellow Springs, white people will have to push for it, McGruder believes. First, however, they must see the need for it.
“It can’t happen without white people,” he said.
The work of white people
White people, those interviewed noted, are vital to dismantling white supremacy, both internally, and as part of institutions. As Robinson put it, “accepting that white skin infers a privilege that people without white skin don’t have is something that has to be grappled with in one’s life.”
But why is it so difficult for white people to see, talk about and understand racism? It’s a complicated topic, and one explored in several recent books, including “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo, a book at the center of a new discussion group at the Yellow Springs Library led by Nacim Sajabi (see page 2).
According to DiAngelo, white people often respond to charges that they are complicit in white supremacy with defensiveness because they have been so insulated from racial discomfort.
Rothman-Zecher, a participant and facilitator for Courageous Conversations, a six-week course about racism in town, observed that white people avoid looking at race due to the loss of power they feel. With the risk of being called out for saying something, white people often shy away from such discussions.
“Talking openly and vulnerably about race is a place where white people are not absolutely powerful,” he said. “That’s because being raised white is being raised with the expectation of perpetual comfort.”
But discomfort can be a gateway to learning, according to Antioch College instructor Luisa Bieri, who teaches a course at the college called Dialogue Across Difference, which she also helped design.
Bieri, who is white, has found conversations about race have to be slowed down in order for participants to “stay in a moment of discomfort” rather than “attacking each other or reacting.” Students are taught effective listening and mindfulness techniques to discover their own feelings and resources and become more self-reflective on issues of race.
“We encourage them to really think about where they’re coming from and where those ideas are stemming from,” she said.
For Bieri, the challenges for white people to face race arise because while white supremacy is the dominant cultural paradigm, it often goes unexamined as “the water we swim in.” Becoming conscious of race requires “sustained dialogue,” Bieri believes, yet white people are not accustomed to talking about race and can struggle to stay in such conversations.
“When we talk about race and racism, because it has been so taboo and yet so much has permeated our culture and country, a lot of feelings come up,” she said.
One reaction among white people is a fear that they will “say the wrong thing.” As a result, Bieri has seen how some white people engage in the “performative exercise” of saying what they think others want to hear. Her challenge, as an instructor, is to help students “tap into their authentic self” in order to be open and honest with one another, she said.
“Our goal is to create a space where people can be authentic with each other,” she said. “It can be messy and it can become uncomfortable.”
Louise Smith, who is now retired from Antioch but helped design and teach Dialogue Across Difference in recent years, has also witnessed white people being more concerned about how their actions are going to be perceived by Black people than about taking steps to be a better ally.
“We want to be thought well of, we want to be on the right side of history,” said Smith, who is white.
Smith, who is also a practicing therapist, says she sees a range of feelings arise when a white person comes into consciousness about their own whiteness: denial, outrage, guilt, numbness, a sense of futility and more. But white people must move beyond those feelings.
“You can’t let yourself be paralyzed by it,” she said. “You can’t get stuck there.”
Smith said she has personally “made every mistake as a white person,” from being defensive to being a “know-it-all” when it comes to discussions about race. In the face of such mistakes, white people should not take criticisms of their behavior personally and should develop empathy for people of color and humility in such conversations, she said.
“We have to develop understanding for what’s at stake for people of color,” she said. “This is not just an intellectual exercise. This is their lived experience and trauma.”
Bieri believes it’s also imperative that white people talk to other white people about the issue and not rely on Black people to teach them about racism. During the Dialogue Across Difference course (which has been co-taught by a Black and white instructor), “affinity groups” of people with similar racial identities meet to share experiences. The groups give people of color and Indigenous people a safe space in which they can heal, while providing white people the time to learn how they have perpetuated racism in their behaviors. Often, however, there is resistance, Bieri explained.
“A lot of white people say I can’t learn unless a person of color can teach me,” she said. “But it’s a chance for white people to really take stock.”
White fragility is real, Robinson noted. A critical race theorist, she teaches an online class at Antioch University Online that explores issues of race. She has also learned that people of color can’t do the work of white people for them.
“White people need to do white people’s work,” she said. “It’s not my job to make you feel comfortable enough to make you understand that your experience of the world is different from other people’s.”
But that doesn’t mean people of color don’t have a role to play, Robinson said.
“For those of us who are not white, it takes forgiveness, it takes acceptance of someone’s efforts to change,” she said. “But it also takes holding them responsible for that commitment.”
Although conversations about racism can be slow, and challenging, they can result in powerful, and sometimes transformational, outcomes.
For example, the Dialogue Across Difference course, which is now required for all students, helped spur change at a college that has experienced the “weight of the call out culture,” according to Smith.
Bieri said the effective communication skills developed in the course have “spread out like ripples and affected the campus climate.”
“The students have become skillful leaders at Antioch for institutional change,” she said.
That work followed naturally from the hard work of facing one’s racist behaviors, Bieri added.
“Once you are committed to changing, then a lot of solidarity and joy and creativity arise,” she said. “You are creating a liberatory space from where you can create change.”
Students, for instance, worked to institute a Racial Discrimination Prevention Policy, which is modeled after the college’s Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. And, as Smith noted, after calls for greater Black leadership, there are currently three Black vice presidents at the college.
McGruder, meanwhile, is participating in a new affirmative marketing campaign for Yellow Springs that would create a more welcoming environment for people of color while dismantling internal barriers for them. A collaboration of several local entities, including Home, Inc., the YS Chamber of Commerce and The 365 Project, the campaign aims to help to turn around around the decline in the local Black population.
Another local opportunity is Courageous Conversations, a collaboration between The 365 Project and the Yellow Springs Havurah in which 60 villagers have participated over the last two years. Groups are continuing to form.
Bruce Heckman, a white man who has been a participant and facilitator, said in the short run, the process promotes “greater understanding,” while in the long run, it can spur local anti-racist action. Each group’s final task is to decide what the group is going to do next.
“We learn that we can actually have courageous, difficult conversations with each other, and a natural outgrowth of that is there will be a greater dismantling of racist institutions,” he said. “We’re getting a foothold on racism together and then we’re going to keep going.”
As an example, one Courageous Conversations group, which has continued to meet and now goes by the name Next Steps, will be erecting a new Black Lives Matter banner on the south end of town this week in a project it spearheaded. Rothman-Zecher is a member of that group, as is this reporter.
There is always more work to do. According to Rothman-Zecher, white people need to commit to the perpetual work of wrestling with racism, which he said needs to become a daily effort for people who “have the choice to opt in and opt out.” The Saturday morning anti-racism rallies organized by local youth, where villagers come face-to-face with their own racism, Rothman-Zecher says, is one way to show up.
Rothman-Zecher hopes that this summer is the beginning, and not the end, of anti-racist action.
“This summer has to be another jump start,” he said. “There is nothing that can be done this summer, no book to read, no banner to fly and no policy to enact that is an arrival.”
Bieri too hopes for ongoing efforts.
“This is a topic that needs to be discussed often, and in every institution,” she said. “At the dinner table, at gatherings, in public forums and in public spaces.”
And even though it can be challenging for white people to face racism, Bieri believes that white people actually benefit from the work. The outcome can be both transformational and healing.
“We are not doing this work for someone else, we are doing it for ourselves, for our families, for our children, for the potential future of this country,” she said.