By Friday night, I’m ready to watch a movie or sit around my fire pit with a glass of wine. The last thing I want to do is talk about an uncomfortable topic with people I don’t really know in a place I’ve never been. Yet, that’s exactly what I did last Friday night when I went to a Hopewell Valley Race and Diversity Discussion Group (HVRDDG) at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Pennington. In full disclosure, it’s the third meeting, always held on Friday nights somewhere in Hopewell Valley, I’ve gone to since they were started about a year ago.
So why do I, a white woman, seek out the opportunity to talk about race? Well for starters, it’s difficult to turn on the television without hearing stories that center around race. Whether it’s about Colin Kaepernick kneeling at football games, white supremacists supporting Donald Trump for president, Black Lives Matter, or reports of black men being shot by police officers, race is a big issue in this country and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.
Hopewell Valley Race and Diversity Discussion Group
HVRDDG was started by Renata Barnes, a Pennington resident. Barnes was raised in Pennington but moved to NYC to attend college. She stayed in the city, launched her career in media, got married, and had a son. Over ten years ago, she reluctantly moved back to Pennington in order to obtain a good education for her son. She’s still conflicted about the decision because it’s difficult living in the town where she was called the N-word daily by kids in Hopewell’s schools.
For this meeting, Barnes and co-leader Aime Weiss, a Princeton graduate who majored in African American Studies and Sociology, asked Dr. Rosetta Treece, Principal of Timberlane Middle School to speak about educating a diverse community of students. Educating kids to be culturally competent is a goal that Dr. Tom Smith, Hopewell Valley Regional School District Superintendent, takes seriously.
The night began with Dr. Treece outlining some ground rules: 1) All must remain open to each other and respectful, despite disagreement, 2) Truth must be shared, despite political correctness, and 3) These conversations must be brought to our young people.
She then handed each table of 7 people a list of common expressions and asked us to identify whether they were negative or positive, after which we attempted to attribute each to the ethnic group that they were about. Most of us didn’t realize that a few of the sayings were about a group at all. For other expressions, we simply never knew their historical origin.
In a climate where the connotation of ‘political correctness’ has drawn negative attention, we were asked to think in terms of ‘human correctness’. Simply, why use expressions (i.e. indian giver) that make people feel bad?
Several people of color shared personal stories where they felt as if their heritage was discounted, identities invalidated, and their worth questioned.
A Japanese-American woman, who was born in an internment camp during World War II, attended the meeting with her daughter. Her daughter talked about the profound effect of finding little information in her high school history books about the Japanese-American experience during the war. I realized that I know almost nothing about what Japanese-Americans went through during that time period, which made me wonder what else I wasn’t taught.
Dr. Treece shared that as a young girl, her class was given the assignment to trace their ethnicity. As a descendent of slaves, who knows only her continent of origin, this was an unwelcome and painful assignment. A woman echoed her daughter’s emotional reaction when she recently was given the same assignment in a Hopewell elementary school.
In stark contrast to the first story, Dr. Treece also talked about one of her teachers who took great pains to learn what a little girl of color might need at just the right time in her life. In fifth grade, Dr. Treece wanted to read the history of her ancestors and words of people that looked more like her. Though most of her white friends were reading the latest Judy Blume book, she carried Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family to school. She knew that the lengthy book was too old for her elementary-aged brain and so did her teacher. Instead of forcing her to read something she had no interest in, he introduced her to Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and continued to give her books that spoke to her. As she remembered the teacher, who happened to be white, her voice hitched and her eyes teared thinking about the effect he had on her.
Giving children a more balanced perspective of history propels Dr. Treece to continuously search for curriculum representing the totality of American experiences. Stories written by Americans of many ethnic and racial backgrounds are encouraged in classrooms as well as materials that reflect points of view of the conquered as well as those of the conqueror. One white person present said that she frequently asks her son, “What if we read this textbook from the point of view of the people already living in North and South America?”
Color blindness, as it relates to race, is the assertion that there is no color, just people. It sounds good but it invalidates a fundamental part of people. There are a lot of factors (ie. race, disability, gender, sexual orientation) affecting how a person experiences the world. Dismissing any of those factors causes an inability to really know the person. We all need to move beyond tolerance (aka merely tolerating someone different) and through the surface of ‘celebrating’ diversity. Eating foods from other cultures and being polite to co-workers, though nice, doesn’t scratch the outermost layer of getting to know a person or a culture. One person of color at the meeting said that she doesn’t believe in the fabled American melting pot. Rather, she likes the image of being part of a chunky soup.
People don’t go to the meetings to learn how to be more politically correct. Sure, they could spend their time learning words and expressions they shouldn’t say, but they’d never really know why they were off limits and why they hurt people so deeply.
I can’t imagine telling a bunch of strangers what makes me angry, hurt and full of shame, yet that’s what people do at these meetings. It’s a privilege to listen, getting somewhat closer to understanding what it’s like to be a person of color in this community.
Many ask, in varying ways, towards the end of the meetings, “What do we do now?” Ms. Barnes gives the same answer each time, “The conversations that happen here need to continue outside these walls with people that weren’t here.”
To learn more about the meetings or be added to the HVRDDG email distribution list, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.