Last Wednesday I saw news of a “fun” house party in Newport Beach, Calif., where white teenagers in a big group saluted Hitler and played beer pong with cups placed in the shape of a giant red swastika. Thursday, I woke up to news that my high school in Washington, D.C., was riddled with swastikas drawn by students. And on Friday, I asked some Martha’s Vineyard High School students about whether these incidents resonated, and they didn’t hesitate to mention the racist words in bathrooms that janitors erase weekly, and epithets carved into desks as common as bubble gum stuck beneath. Recently, this paper reported on the discovery of swastikas in bathrooms at the high school.
High school was the roaring theme last week, and bigotry. That week began for me in Portland, Maine, at the Racial Equity Institute’s Phase 1 Training, with college professors and deans, high school teachers, nurses, lawyers, writers, and businesspeople learning the 411 on race in America. The days weren’t about labeling the “racist” in the room, but more about identifying how and why the American economic and political system turns out people with implicit racial bias, and others who add hatred and vitriol to that bias as actual racists.
We went over disheartening facts about the racial and economic breakdowns of 2019 America. Instead of focusing on identity or religion or ethnicity, we looked at laws, economics, and the history of how, when, and why America employed concepts of “white” and “black,” beginning in the 1600s, designed to strategically stagnate the African American population and raise white men on high in myriads of ways.
Relearning American history at age 37 is different from when I learned it at age 16, in high school. There were things I didn’t know, like how and why 1930s projects like the Hoover Dam and Lincoln Tunnel were built after the WPA and the New Deal opened jobs to African Americans to shift the economy, or how all those opportunities had a growth gap due to racist home ownership laws barring property acquisition, an important way up in the U.S. economic system, or that blood was legally separated by “race” in hospitals until 1950.
The intention of the training I went to, as stated by the three facilitators, was for all of us to “leave with clarity, discomfort, and questions.” It worked. I took the drive from Portland to Woods Hole faster than I wanted. I was racing a snowstorm and trying to think cleanly about the many dirty facts I had learned again about slavery, about the drawing of racial categories and codes in the late 1600s, of the odd and frightening reasons for enslaving and dehumanizing black men and women. One element named was to find a way to empower white, unruly, and disenfranchised workers in from Europe by raising their worth above others. I saw money differently when I left Portland’s Unitarian Universalist Church, where the workshop was held. I saw neighborhoods differently. My house, my body, my history — they all changed a bit as I was armed with new information. Not a brainwashing. Not a “let’s convince you of some raw, horrible truth.” But facts, Wikipedia-style, Google-able information on legally imposed American racism that defines how the world I inhabit evolved to its current state.
I left with a real welt in my heart, knowing it isn’t simple as pie to fix this world, and that it is even simpler to pretend there is no racial problem. When I got back to the Island, I attended a private meeting in Oak Bluffs calling racial justice advocates into conversation. Those of us who are having the conversation can appear annoying or delusional to those who are not yet attuned. I raised the issues I was confronted with from Monday to Friday, the many ways my high school education was being recalled, and the dangerous environment for kids today in the midst of a rise in bigotry. It was obvious at that meeting that there is work to do right here in Duke’s County, and that the work requires all of those who care to take new steps to make even safer spaces, safer schools, safer board meetings and town meetings.
“Racism is the legacy of this country,” my trainers told me. “We cannot regionalize or contain it.” But we can, I am sure, work to dismantle it, to awaken to its insidious ways, and to embolden ourselves and our communities, and most important, our children, with an awakened form of all-encompassing love. That love shows up in how we educate ourselves, how we educate others, how we talk to our children about race and racism, and how we choose to bravely walk away with questions, and discomfort, for the sake of a better tomorrow.
The Racial Equity Institute has trainings throughout the year. Upcoming nearby trainings: Boston, March 18-19, Newport, R.I.: April 3-4. It also does private trainings for police, schools, churches, and general community education with three months’ advance booking. For more please visit racialequityinstitute.com.
Merissa Nathan Gerson’s writing appears in the New York Times, Playboy, the Atlantic, and beyond. She is a frequent contributor to The MV Times.