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Taking the next step

Community members seek to continue discussions about racism and privilege

Posted: May 9, 2013 - 12:00am

Nearly a month has passed since photos from an Asian-themed party held in Juneau were posted on Facebook, spurring intense and extensive community exchanges about cultural insensitivity. Now that things have quieted down, some members of the arts community are working to find ways to move the discussion forward by facilitating more productive public exchanges about the topic.

Among those who want to take the next step are poet Christy NaMee Eriksen, writer Ishmael Hope and UAS professor of Alaska Native Languages Lance Twitchell. The three are part of an informal working group who’ve been brainstorming ways to continue public discussion about race, and channel the post-party conflict into an opportunity for growth.

Korean-born Eriksen, who initially questioned the appropriateness of “dressing Asian” for the April 14 party in a Facebook post (“Just wondering what this is about, and whether anyone is questioning it”), said she wants to work toward the common goal of creating a healthier community.

“The truth is we are all on the same team,” Eriksen said. “We all want the community to be the best place for ourselves and for our children, where we can relate to each other as diverse, multifaceted, complex human beings from all kinds of cultures. We don’t want to see racism have the institutional and personal consequences that it has. We are all on that team, whatever form that takes, we are all committed to that idea.”

Some of the ideas that have been thrown around for continuing the conversation include inviting writer Ishmael Reed to visit Juneau and give a talk, planning a retreat, and organizing a panel discussion. Topics might include how people of color are treated in the community, the ways racism appears today (socially and institutionally), and how many people avoid the topic out of fear of embarrassment, labeling, change and admission of power and privilege.

Ultimately, Eriksen said, progress can only come through an acknowledgment that racism isn’t a theory, but a real thing.

“‘Making things better’ is going to take honesty and vulnerability and consciously working against racism,” she said. “An acknowledgment that if I do nothing, and if I just hope this goes away, that unconsciously just continues to let racism prevail.”

Photos from the private April 14 party were initially posted on Facebook, but have since been taken down. After Eriksen raised her concerns about cultural appropriation, stereotypical costumes, and the idea of organizing a party around an “Asian theme,” the conversation exploded, growing to 80 comments on some Facebook posts. From there it spilled over into local coffee shops and workplaces -- and eventually onto the Opinion page (and comments section) of this newspaper. Some raised some important questions: Where is the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation? How do you separate intent from impact? But ultimately the productive parts of the conversation became difficult to tease out from a prolonged back-and-forth that left many feeling frustrated and others defensive.

Local artist Sarah Conarro, who was at the party, said that the initial Facebook exchanges made it hard to see where progress could be made, causing many people who might have joined the conversation to lapse into silence. Other forums are needed, she said.

”I feel like part of the topic is how to talk about it,” she said. “Facebook is not the way.”

Hope, who was also frustrated by the initial conversations, said one problem with continuing the dialogue is the resistance to believing there is a problem in the first place. We like to think we live in a post-racial society, he said, where everyone is treated equally, but this is not the case. When something like this happens, it’s a chance to acknowledge there are continued problems, and reassess behavior and attitudes.

“This is something that affects our town,” Hope said. “I think our eyes are opened from what happened, because it seems like we’re not as far along as everyone previously thought we were on multicultural understanding.”

Nationally, statistics back up the common sense idea that an individual’s race has a big influence on whether or not that individual views race as a serious issue in their community. A CNN poll conducted in 2006 found that 49 percent of black respondents considered racism a “very serious” problem, compared with 18 percent of whites (www.cnn.com/2006/US/12/12/racism.poll). In commenting on the poll, researcher Jack Dovidio, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, said “We’ve reached a point that racism is like a virus that has mutated into a new form that we don’t recognize. Contemporary racism is not conscious, and it is not accompanied by dislike, so it gets expressed in indirect, subtle ways.”

Cultural appropriation can be particularly tricky because there is often no conscious intent to degrade. That creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, Hope said, between what the individual thinks about race and their actions, and that imbalance can contribute to defensiveness.

Sol Neely, Assistant Professor of English and Philosophy at UAS and another community member interested in continuing the dialogue about racism in our community, said that the act of listening can be a powerful step toward mutual understanding.

“One of the issues I promote in my classroom is to develop the competency to listen. There are more things to hear and listen to than we can accommodate and because of that we need to develop deep humility and the courage for self reflection and self examination,” he said. “If we approach this with vulnerability and a willingness to listen, then maybe some transformation can occur.”

Conarro said she also hopes the conversation will continue, in part for the sake of the community’s kids.

“I’m a mother. (My daughter) Margot and (Eriksen’s son) Sun Woo are the same age. How do you teach your children about white privilege? Sun Woo will feel racism, but my kids need to be taught about white privilege. But I don’t know how to do it. And I would love suggestions, in the desire for my children to be upstanding members of the human race and of their community. It’s like teaching them a second language from birth.“

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