Black Lives, White Voices

The City of Geneva, Illinois recently set an example for white communities seeking to discuss race in America.

They demonstrated how NOT to hold such a conversation.

People tried to do a positive thing, but they didn’t succeed, and they don’t seem to understand why it didn’t work. Often what we see in response to the criticism of not understanding something about racial equity and justice is that white people get defensive. If you see this in others or yourself when your approach is criticized, take a bead, think about it.

Conversations like these are hard to prepare and carry out. If it causes harm to the Black people present, and if it causes harm by misinforming the white people it intends to educate, this is not a success. Doing a thing poorly is not necessarily better than not doing it, and intent does not justify negative outcomes.

Broadly, the problems with the event are the following.

  • The event was centered around white people — their motives in addressing diversity, their perspectives on the inclusiveness of the Geneva community, and their strategies for addressing inclusion and diversity in the community.
  • The event was ill-conceived and the participants were ill-prepared. There were no Black voices on the panel, and the panelists were not prepared or willing to offer substantive educational content to the audience.
  • Some of the commentary and demeanor from the participants were reprehensible.

First, I will describe the setup of the event, the timeline of conversations leading up to it, and the timeline during the event. Then, I will describe specific occurrences during the event and assess them.

 

What qualifies me to evaluate this event?

I’m a Black man who has lived within white communities much of my life. I work in a profession that is majority white. I have participated in or started many conversations on race, equity, diversity, inclusion in both professional and personal contexts. I have studied and developed effective practices in these conversations, and I know about the demonstrably ineffective and harmful ways of carrying out these conversations.

I’ve been in rooms like this.

 

Why am I writing this article?

The Geneva event was harmful to Black people, as well as to the effort to address racial justice in the city, because it attempted to speak for us. Also, the organizers have not reached out to me to understand my objections, so this is a way for me to communicate to them and the broader community some lessons that could be learned.

 

Background: Description and lead-up

The event was convened by the Geneva Strategic Planning Advisory Committee (SPAC) in conjunction with the City of Geneva. As far as I can tell, all of the members of SPAC are white. This is important.

The event was announced through this message from the city. The central activity of the event is the following:

After a short video presentation, Mayor Kevin Burns will moderate a panel discussion with Aurora University professor Dr. Jerry Butters and Geneva History Museum Executive Director Terry Emma, who will respectively discuss both national historical perspectives and local experiences for African-Americans in Geneva.

Upon seeing that both panelists are white (as is the moderator), I reached out to SPAC via email to learn about their process for designing this event. My primary line of inquiry had the goal of understanding in particular how the organizers thought about the importance of having Black voices on the panel. The summary of their response was the following: a) re-describe the event to me and emphasize that it is the beginning of a conversation; b) offer an opportunity for me to suggest new panelists; c) decline to discuss via email the issue of not having Black people on the panel or centrally involved in the event.

The email response from SPAC is problematic for a few reasons. First, their willingness to ask me to recommend panelists implies poor preparation. It is poor form to bring in a panelist at the last minute, and not make sure that they’re included in the design of the event. This would be tokenization. Moreover, either they didn’t do much research or preparation to find a Black person for the panel, or they didn’t deem it a valuable contribution. This request also suggests that SPAC is okay asking a Black person to do more work to teach white people (in finding people to be on the panel). Finally, the organizers avoided talking about this issue and didn’t appear to consider it urgent to address.

I had no desire to be a participant of this event, either as an organizer or a panelist. Nor was I keen to attend the event, because having conversations like this is difficult work; and I have hard conversations about this every day, so I don’t need another one.

Despite this, I decided to attend with an open mind and to exercise the appropriate level of skepticism. I attended so I could learn what the city considers an appropriate conversation on race and Black history. I didn’t want this conversation to fail, but I have to be ready for that. I’m often the most experience or educated person in the room on topics of racial justice, so I need to be ready to understand what I’m experiencing and to correct the record when necessary.

 

Event Timeline

The event’s schedule was:

Let’s look at each phase of the event.

 

Video

The video describes the history of redlining in America. Redlining is a process through which landowners discriminated against Blacks and other minorities to prevent them from living in white neighborhoods. Redlining has long-term and extant repercussions for the socio-economic success of Black people because it drives segregation in social, business, and educational contexts. Combined with the framework of using local taxes to fund schools, it promotes inequities that can easily last for decades without anti-racist interventions.

Like most videos by Adam Ruins Everything, this one has a quasi-humorous tone. Some, like the moderator, would say that a humorous tone can help the conversation. Indeed, but it must be done in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time. Geneva’s first public conversation on racial justice is neither of those.

This should be a somber conversation on oppression and discrimination in Geneva in the context of historical and national events. If this town had consistently demonstrated respect for Black History, substantively approached these issues in the past, or had already engaged in a habit of somber conversations, maybe injections of humor would be appropriate. When you set a humorous tone at the beginning, it suggests that it might be okay for the participants to make jokes, to make light of tragedy and injustice. In an environment of insufficient education on the subjects at hand, that poses serious challenges for maintaining a respectful conversation.

These are indeed difficult conversations, but to react by making it easier for white people, by prioritizing the comfort of white people is insensitive, disrespectful, and counterproductive. First,  racial injustice is about the imperiled lives and futures of Black people, not about white comfort. Second, without already having established trust and respect, you run the risk of further injury to a fight for equality and inclusion, as well as to the people you’re looking to include.

 

Beginning Panel Remarks

The panelists shared only a few prepared comments. Professor Butters noted that the demographics of Chicago and Cook County are changing — more white people in the city and more persons of color in the suburbs. He noted that many of them are middle class. I don’t recall the introductory comments from the Executive Director of the Museum. The Moderator did not appear to have any lines of question prepared, and worked extemporaneously.

The initial panel comments did not take up much time and were not particularly in-depth in terms of educating the audience on topics related to Black history. I thought this was the whole point of the event — to transfer information from those who have it to those who don’t.

 

An open-ended conversation amongst the participants

The moderator, Mayor Burns, initiated Q&A with the audience, emphasizing that this should be an open conversation. I found this to be a curious way to approach this discussion. In a conversation that is ostensibly intended to teach about Black History, what does a white audience have to offer? It quickly became quite a disjointed and multi-threaded conversation rife with non-sequiturs, tangential thoughts, and often irrelevant ideas that verged on or were racist.

Because there was little-to-no organization to the conversation, I’ll next discuss the elements according to the person who said them — the audience, Moderator Mayor Burns, Professor Butters, and Director Emma.

 

Comments from the audience

Most of the discussion had nothing to do directly with Black History Month, let alone Black experiences of America. Much of the discussion was just random comments and anecdotes from audience members about one of the few times they encountered a Black person in Geneva. It sounded like a litany of “My Black friend” stories.

Often, they included a note about how that Black person was liked by everyone. White people do this a lot — talk about how Black people in their lives are so likable. Now, why is this problematic? I’ll explain in a second, but it’s worthwhile for you to first think about it, especially if you’re a white person.

Remember when people talked about Colin Powell, and how he was so “well-spoken,” so “articulate,” etc? These comments express how Black people don’t get to be considered as likable or articulate as a default. It’s as if you’re describing this person as the exception to the racist rule that Black people are not likable. Ask yourself why you feel the need to describe how likable a Black person is. And then reconsider doing it at all.

With the setup of the video on the segregationist practice of redlining, one of the main points of discussion was affordable housing. However, even on this significant thread, there wasn’t really any organization. In 2017 and 2018, there was an effort to develop affordable housing in the Fox Valley. The debate was marked with virulent xenophobia and racism by current residents of the area. Audience members at the event lamented and decried the attitudes and expressed hope that they’d be able to prevent a similar thing from happening in the future. While it’s understandable that this topic arose, it’s interesting how a discussion of improving diversity in Geneva goes pretty quick to affordable housing. Do people not realize that there are people of color who make plenty of money to live in Geneva? Yes, there are far fewer of them relatively, but they exist. So, why not work to make the city inviting to Black people of all kinds of socioeconomic status?

During a related but distinct thread, one resident remarked that the people of Geneva need strategies to “bait the hook” for more persons of color to live there. Again, ask yourself, what might be wrong with this phrasing. I’ll wait. That phrase can be used in a lot of contexts and is often used to refer to attracting humans to particular situations. However, its origin comes from fishing, which is to catch an animal. When it’s used specifically in the context of attracting Black people to an area, one has to be aware that Black people have been cast as “beasts” for longer than America has been a country. This casting is part of what has enabled anti-Black racism across the world. Therefore, while it may appear as a minor or innocuous turn of phrase, the conversational context matters. So, don’t talk about “baiting hooks” to bring Black people to your community.

This also poses Geneva as a place where Black people should want to live– like, “Geneva is great, the problem is just convincing Black people of that,” when in fact this event indicates that Geneva hasn’t even started to consider how to get its act together.

A few times, audience members (mostly white women) spoke up about the problematic nature of the event itself. First, at the beginning of the event, a person sitting next to me immediately commented to me about the irony of there being no Black people on the panel. Later, another white woman suggested to the room that the people leading the conversation should be Black. Yet later, someone suggested to the room that conversations like this should not be centering white people. Nevertheless, after these comments were made, the rest the participants and panel went back to discussing random threads that didn’t center Black people.

Aside from this ignorance, an incredible lack of awareness reared its head consistently throughout the night: Many times, a panelist, the moderator or an audience member congratulated the community for starting this conversation. I counted 10 times, I think it was more.

 

Comments from Mayor Burns (Moderator)

Burns directed conversation mostly by calling on people whose hands were raised or by voicing his own questions or ideas.

Among his own questions, and in this case an awkward non-sequitur, was (paraphrasing) “What do people like to be called, Black or African-American?” He then proceeded to ask the only other Black audience member (a reporter) what they preferred to be called. She responded with her choice. This was a complete non sequitur, and no relevance to Black History Month or to racial justice was established. Not only that, but it is wildly inappropriate to single out individuals in an audience with a question of triviality, especially when Black people were not offered any other voice in the design of this conversation.

Burns also made a number of comments half-jokingly, which I thought were mostly inappropriate. For example, he told the story of a Black police officer having been accused of stealing a police car. He preceded it with something like “here’s a story that’s as funny as it is sad …”; there’s nothing funny about that story. Nothing. Not when Black men are killed on a regular basis for driving while black or holding a cellphone while Black. This comment suggests a lack of sensitivity and experience, to not just of history, but modern American racial injustice.

About an hour into the conversation, I had had enough. I decided to say something. I chided the organizers for not including Black people in the panel or in the planning, and I criticized everyone in the room for congratulating themselves on having done a harmful version of the least thing that could be done for Black History Month. A few audience members agreed with me, visibly nodding.

But, as I was making my comment, I was partially interrupted by Burns so he could debate my points. He then asked a question that made no sense to me in the context of comments (paraphrasing), “Do you want me to be nice to you because you’re Black?” This question or the context of it, my partner and I have not yet deciphered. The one Black person in the room (who’s not a journalist) takes the energy to say something, and they get interrupted. Burns later asked if I wanted to make any further comments, but I had lost my train of thought.

 

Comments from Professor Gerald Butters (Panelist)

Overall, the majority of commentary from Prof. Butters did not justify his participation. He either didn’t have or didn’t take the opportunities to share worthwhile knowledge, aside from his opening remarks, of Black history and race relations in the United States. I’ll note below the most salient of his problematic comments that I remember.

One audience member offered an idea for engaging communities of color — to learn how to build community with them, learn how to be a part of their lives. In response, Butters suggested that students in school or other programs are often required to do community service; he said that these students are great because they are “free labor.” As I discussed earlier, the context in which turns of phrase are used is important. In this context, Black people have experienced enslavement for hundreds of years in America. Enslavement is free labor. The usage of this phrase during a Black History Month event is insensitive and ill-conceived.

 

Comments from Executive Director Emma (Panelist)

The most salient feature of Emma’s commentary was her persistent refusal to discuss Geneva’s historical mistreatment of Black people. Instead, she pulled the focus toward how Geneva welcomed Black celebrities, like sports athletes. She said a few times, “These are the only good stories I could find, the rest are bad.” Simply put, how dare you whitewash a Black History month event? This was one of the most reprehensible actions during the event.

Emma noted with pride how Geneva gave one sports star the keys to the jailhouse. She also mentioned proudly that one of the celebrities that was welcomed was Aunt Jemima, played by Rita Wilson. Emma completely missed the point that Aunt Jemima is a part of Mammie and Blackface culture, which is a tool of oppression. Aunt Jemima visiting Geneva is not a good example of Geneva welcoming Black people. The ignorance on this topic is jarring, but not surprising. When the question of Sunset Towns arose, Emma stated many times over that in her research (which seemed inexhaustive) she couldn’t find evidence that Geneva was one of them.

Finally, at one point, Emma told a story about one of her family members in Italy who has dark skin and who experience discrimination because of it. Again, this is offensively irrelevant.

 

Summary and Outlook

It’s clear that a number of people in the City of Geneva recognize that the community has a problem with race, equality, diversity, and inclusion. It’s clear that they want to do something. However, it is also clear that they have made a few mistakes early in this current effort.

  1. They forgot that a major component of Black history and Black experience is … Black people. They centered the event on white people’s interpretation of our experiences.
  2. They were poorly prepared, in particular for this event and for the larger task of addressing Geneva’s lack of diversity. This is another clear example of white communities under-estimating the effort required for such endeavors. Moreover, the self-congratulatory comments betray not only that lack of awareness, but a willingness to snatch mediocrity from the jaws of potential success.

The organizers and participants did not need to make these errors: the errors are not the result of valiantly trying something that has never been done before. They are the result of not preparing, which includes not searching for (or not finding) people who have worked through situations like this before. I very much hope the organizers of future events realize that a lot of thought, even for a seemingly simple event, is likely required.

The organizers should apologize to the community and the Black citizens of Geneva for failing to just do due diligence in preparing for this event.

One reason that I’ve written this criticism is that it’s long past time that white people and white communities stop receiving applause from themselves for doing so little – and so late in the game. A prime, long-running example of white privilege is the low threshold for driving change that they continue to enjoy.

What this conversation did is to clarify the gulf between this city and me.

 

How would I set up a conversation like this?

If you want to have a conversation about white feelings and experiences of racism, have that conversation, but don’t call it a Black History Month event. Those conversations are important because privileged people need to reflect and understand their conceptualization of and behavior within the context of that privilege. But, that’s not a Black History Month event.

If the aim is to have a conversation about Black History amongst people who didn’t experience life as a Black person, then the event needs to be more educational, and it needs to center Black people.

Moreover, Black History in America is modern history: we still experience discrimination, segregation, and subjugation that can be as horrific as it was 50 years ago. It is imperative that the conversation is clear that the problems are not of the past, they are here today.

Finally, the discussion during the event must be intersectional. Black people are not a monolith.

An example event:

Participants
  1. Panelists:
    1. Activists from groups like Black Lives Matter and Black members of the LGBTQ+ community.
    2. A Black member of the Geneva community
    3. A Black professor from the Chicagoland area, preferably in the areas of sociology, history, race, philosophy, etc.
    4. A white activist who is a member of a group, like SURJ
  2. Moderator:
    1. A Black community member, who is trained to guide and facilitate a conversation like this.
  3. Question translator:
    1. Someone to choose and interpret questions from the audience.
Format (7-8:30pm)
  1. 7pm:
    1. Video excerpts from Ava DuVarnay’s film on modern methods of Black enslavement, “The 13th.”
  2. 7:10pm:
    1. 5 minutes of commentary from each of the panelists. The panelists will be asked to give their response to a specific question regarding the segregation in American cities and the role that white people play.
    2. The audience may submit questions via index cards to the moderator.
  3. 7:30pm:
    1. The panelists answer the questions.
  4. 8pm:
    1. Video excerpts of James Baldwin.
  5. 8:10pm:
    1. Commentary from the panelists on Baldwin excerpts.
  6. 8:30: adjourn

 

News coverage of the event

”This entire hour I’ve been crinnging” (Kane County Chronicle)

One thought on “Black Lives, White Voices

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