Reflections on an Inspiring Facing Race 2014

The Facing Race 2014 conference (organized by Race Forward, publisher of Colorlines) highlighted social justice activists from across the country. Their inspiring words began immediately. At 8am Friday morning, activists from Ferguson reminded us that Sunday, today, will be the 100th day since the police killed an unarmed black man, yet again. While we hold our breath waiting for the indictment results from the Grand Jury hearing, these activists also reminded us we should not be stopped by a likely return of no indictment. They said, “Young people have awakened a collective consciousness of a community, and it will not be put to sleep.” The youth are leading this movement, and we need to be prepared to have an open mind about the vision they bring at the same time as elders need to help them understand history. History and vision must be brought together.

And that was just the first hour of the conference.

We heard from a panel of youth activists doing amazing work around the country, including Jaime-Jin Lewis from the NY organization Border Crossers. Their website states: “By the time they enter kindergarten, children express an explicit white bias. Despite the fact that research consistently shows that taking a ‘colorblind’ or ‘colormute’ approach does not yield race-neutral opinions in children, teachers do not receive adequate training or support in how to address these issues with young children.” I believe more and more that an anti-racist pedagogy needs to begin as early as possible. I don’t teach students until they get to college, and they say, “Why didn’t we know about this history of race before? It would have made all the difference if we had known when we were younger.” I hope my work can help contribute to this mission.

I was very excited to meet scholar john a. powell, who, along with activists from the Demos organization, spoke to us about the relationship between money in politics and racial justice. Professor powell shared a metaphor about the car of neo-liberalism being fueled by racial and other anxieties. Wow! I can’t wait to read his new book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

I went to two amazing media literacy workshops that taught practical tools to help us develop a stronger critical media lens. This can especially help me in my class right now, where students are working on a Media Social Action Assignment (where they identify a specific piece of current popular culture and contact its producer to share whether they think it’s moving us forward or backwards due its representation of race). One workshop focused on reality TV and identified the ways in which stock characters are used repeatedly to dehumanize all women, but especially women of color. Jennifer Pozner (author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV) and Sofia Quinero focused on tools for viewing reality TV (and TV in general) more critically, while the other panel gave us an insider perspective into the ways the media industry operates and how it perpetuates white supremacy.

Both panels reminded us about the power of advertising in TV (especially product placement in reality TV). If we keep buying the products that support the shows that perpetuate racist stereotypes, then this system will continue; we need to be more mindful about our power as consumers and use that to put an end to degrading portrayals of people of color. Furthermore, we also need to work on disrupting a system where very few people of color are hired to work behind the scenes, whether as writers, costume designers, or executive producers. The organization Color of Change is doing fabulous work raising awareness about these issues. We also need to support alternative media like Color Creative; its founder Issa Rae talked to us about her experiences developing the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

I was especially excited to attend a panel focused explicitly on the work I’m trying to do here with this blog; it was titled “Multiply and Mobilize: Resisting Divide and Conquer Tactics in Multiracial Work.” It was an interactive session run by the organization AORTA that gave us the opportunity to hear from activists who described situations where the divide and conquer mentality could have ended a specific fight for justice, but activists forged on, built bridges, and successfully created coalitions. I was personally so thrilled to be able to hear a panel of experienced activists, including the leader of Race Forward, Rinku Sen, speak about the need to disrupt divide and conquer ways of thinking. As the title of my blog makes clear, this is exactly what I’m trying to do.

In the keynote presentation, three generations of the Reagon family, Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock), her daughter Toshi Reagon, and her daughter Tashawn Reagon, shared the power of music in the fight for social justice and the importance of inter-generational coalition-building. Tashawn is a college student, so I was especially interested in her advice that we “dig deep” and “lean into discomfort.” She also described her work at Skidmore College in Intergroup Relations, a program that more colleges should explore to foster dialog about social justice.

The closing plenary was as inspiring and intellectually rigorous as the rest of the conference, where three speakers provided insight into where we’ve been and where we need to go over the next 50 years in order to achieve racial justice. Ian Haney-Lopez (author of Dog Whistle Politics), Van Jones (former Obama advisor and author of Rebuild the Dream) and Rinku Sen left us with both insight and tools to help us move forward.

I’d like to wrap up here with a few take-away points that kept coming up throughout the conference, concepts that are very important as we fight for justice:

  • make sure your social justice goals are not at the expense of someone else
  • diversity (ie variety) is not enough; it needs to be about equity (power)
  • we need inter-generational coalition-building
  • we must have difficult conversations about race; avoiding it doesn’t make racism go away
  • the false stories that the media tells us about people of color (whether in the news or in prime time drama) fuel the inhumane way people of color are treated in their daily lives
  • we need to understand how different systems (media, Wall St., technology, corporations, electoral politics) connect together to perpetuate systemic racism
  • whiteness was created centuries ago to benefit the white wealthy elite, and it is still being used to support primarily a very small ultra-wealthy white minority that exerts substantial power over everyone else
  • the divide and conquer mentality must be examined and disrupted so we can build coalitions and fight for our common interests

Thank you, Race Forward for organizing such an inspiring conference!


One thought on “Reflections on an Inspiring Facing Race 2014

  1. This is a great write up Karen. Thanks for letting us see the conference through your eyes. The take-away points are especially useful


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