What I learned about racism over a weekend
By Inclusant intern Taylor Thomas
How does one “train” kids to combat institutional racism? It certainly doesn’t seem like something that can be taught in only a few days. I pondered this as as I first entered the historical Bethel AME Church in the Hill District, and I wondered what the next few days would bring. Today was the first day of YUIR Training Weekend. YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) is a project dedicated to helping kids and teens fight against racism using both education on racial injustice and the YUIR community as resources for young organizers.
After getting a name tag, on which I was able to print both my name and my preferred pronouns–which I liked because it meant that our facilitators were making an effort to allow everyone to feel safe whatever their gender identity–I entered the church basement where volunteers were setting up a large circle of chairs. My friend and I quickly found seats, then watched as the basement filled with Pittsburghers of all ages, ready to share, listen, and most importantly learn with one another. The first night, Friday, was spent introducing ourselves and telling the group why we each individually think it’s urgent that we end racism. Besides the obvious reasons (some variant of saying “it’s bad”), there were many creative, insightful, and frank thoughts shared that night. One of the most common statements of the evening was this: “It has been going on far too long.” The rest of the evening was spent eating a delicious dinner prepared by Day La Soul Catering, a black-owned business based on the Northside, and establishing some ground rules for the rest of the weekend. The first set of the rules were based on basic courtesies (one person speaking at a time, respecting that YUIR is a safe space, and keeping what is said there confidential, etc.), and were decided on as a group. There were two rules, however, that were put in place by our facilitators that came off as a little problematic:
1) We would focus our discussion on racism in the United States
2) We would focus our discussion on racism (as opposed to all forms of systematic oppression)
I was concerned that these rules might prevent meaningful discussion on the racism experienced around the world, or how other types of injustice ar
e connected to racism. I believe that when it comes to discussing racism, it is important to recognize the intersection of racism and other factors such as nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. But I realized as the weekend continued that, when dealing with a topic as difficult as racism, it
is much more effective to focus on what we can do about racism right here in the United States, rather than try and tackle all of the social justice issues we can think of. I was pleasantly surprised that, despite the rules, we were still able to keep our discussion intersectional (later in the weekend, I would participate in a great discussion about the plight of black girls in school).
Although I left that night a bit anxious about what the rest of the weekend would hold, I was surprised by how informative the activities and lessons were, and I gained quite an arsenal of tools to use to combat racism. Some of these lessons came from simple exercises that at first glance seemed completely irrelevant to our goals. For example, on Saturday morning we did an interesting activity on socialization. One of the group leaders drew nine dots in the form of a 3×3 square on the board.
He had the group draw the same figure on a piece of paper and asked us to connect all nine dots using only four straight lines. The group struggled with this for several minutes, until one person figured it out. He drew the following figure on the board.
The room was filled with a chorus of “ohhhs” and “now I sees.” Most people who do this exercise (myself included) are under the assumption that, to connect the dots, you have to stay within the non-existent box that the dots form, even though the instructions give no such restriction. This exercise demonstrated how socialization–the process of being taught that society works a certain way–teaches us to not go outside of “the box,” (meaning conventional ways of thinking), which only exists in the first place because of socialization. The group concluded that we often stay inside of this box because of fear, shame, intimidation, desire to conform and fit in, or dependence on others. At this point, I was wondering what all of this had to do with racism. But the answer I learned was simple: the longer we stay in the box, the harder it is to get out. In order to combat racism, we must unlearn our socialization and exit the box.
The leaders also felt that it was important to emphasize the importance of our health while doing work against racism. Racism, like the soil illustrates, is harmful to our health. It is only with the gardening tools, anti-racism organizing and self and community care, that we can keep ourselves safe and healthy.
It wasn’t until the last day that we even addressed what racism was. Defining racism is not a simple task; although the dictionary describes it as discrimination based on race, there is a lot more to it than that. It has to do with socialization, systems, and power. Many people see racism as the dictionary definition. I personally saw racism as any act that attempted to uphold a system in which one race is oppressed by another. The group settled down on a slightly broader definition: racism is a combination of both racial prejudice and power. Racial prejudice is judgement one holds about a certain race. Power is institutional dominance that one race has over others. Racism is the institutional dominance one race has over others because of racial class systems that give them power.
But “What is race?” the group leaders asked us. “How can we tell what someone’s race is?” The group offered suggestions: physical traits (skin, facial structure, hair texture), origins (nationality), ancestry/heritage, name, accents, genetics. But nothing we listed was a definite indicator of someone’s race. The reason that we are not able to indicate race by any of these indicators is because race is a social construct that has only existed for about 500 years or so, popularized by Johann Blumenbach, a German anthropologist, physician, naturalist, and physiologist. His studies influenced what we know today as human races: Caucasoid, Mongoloids, Austroloid , and Negroid. His findings created a ranking of these races, Caucasoid on the top and Negroid on the bottom. (You can read more about Blumenbach’s studies here.)
“Race,” our leaders concluded, “is a classification of human beings created by white Europeans for the purpose of establishing and maintaining a system of power.” For one to be racist is to be able to access these systems of powers, or to be complicit in the same system.
The key word here is system. Racism cannot be boiled down to individual people’s actions, but is something that has been built into our politics and our society. A YUIR participant said it best: “If we put all the racists on a rocket and sent it to Mars, racism would still be here.” As we learned from the socialization activities, racism is something that we as a society have to unlearn. The systems that have locked racism into their structures (the legal system, the education system, etc.) all have to be reformed if we want to eliminate racism.
This post does not begin to scratch the surface of what I learned at YUIR Weekend. Thanks to my facilitators and the other participants, I was able to leave Sunday afternoon feeling more educated, more unified, and more powerful against systems of racism. Most importantly, I felt connected to a brand new community, one that is willing to learn with me, grow with me, and fight with me. Armed with what YUIR taught me, I feel like I can take on anything.
YUIR Pgh meets every Sunday from 1:30-4pm at the Pittsburgh Friends Meeting House, 4836 Ellsworth Ave, 15213. Contact adult advisor Amanda Gross with any questions at 412.315.7423 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about it in this article from the New Pittsburgh Courier.