Paul compared structural racism to the movie The Matrix, in which humans believe they are autonomous individuals but are actually embedded in a malevolent system that they cannot see. In the movie, when people begin to perceive the system, they are told the truth — that the world they know is not reality. They can choose to take a red pill to free themselves and experience reality, or erase their consciousness of the system by taking a blue pill. Becoming aware of structural racism, Paul said, is like taking the red pill. It comprehensively changes one’s perception of society. The challenge for white people, he said, is to maintain this awareness and keep building on it, rather than backsliding and “taking the blue pill.”
We are three CCI interns – two white and one a person of color – who attended the workshop. Here are our impressions.
TESS: First of all, there were a lot of people there. And you could feel the solidarity in the room. Everyone was willing to break into smaller groups and talk over what they were learning. Everyone was in the moment, making eye contact, and connecting to everyone else. It was good to see that. This is at times a very uncomfortable topic. And the workshop asked people to do deep internal exploration and reflection, and to experience enlightening “aha” moments. It was good to see that people were comfortable talking openly about issues surrounding race and privilege, and that the presentation was ultimately effective in that regard.
DEEPA: I was impressed by the framing of the workshop. Trudy Glidden, the white woman who organized the event, opened by describing an incident in which she unintentionally said something offensive to a few people of color. It was a courageous way to start, and it opened the door for others to speak frankly about their own experiences.
I facilitated a small part of the workshop, which was a special challenge for me. As I’ve become more aware of structural racism – and my own identity as a person of color – I’ve sometimes been angry about the oppressive practices I’ve both endured and inflicted on others for years. Going into this event, I did not want to convey any of that anger. I did not want to speak in a way that would make people feel accused and defensive. My goal was to convey compassion for (and solidarity with) this mostly white audience that had gathered in an earnest, open effort to work toward racial justice. I think I made steps toward that goal at the workshop, and that was an internal process that I felt proud of.
MICHAEL: Thinking about structural racism often makes me feel the guilt of knowing I have white privilege, and I want to do something about that. But it’s so easy for white people to “take the blue pill.” Just knowing something is wrong isn’t always enough to make you do something about it. There has to be something that personally motivates you.
So at the workshop, I found something that was personally motivating. If I ever have kids and they look like me — if I am raising someone who is white — I’d want their situation to be different, hopefully more positive. I don’t want white people in the next generation to feel the same guilt I have felt.
I know that’s easy to critique — “How can you position your guilt as the problem?” My guilt is not the problem. The problem is structural racism, which has a disproportionate negative impact on people of color. But what I’m talking about is the idea of collective liberation. I’m not just trying to help “other” people. That can be patronizing. I’m trying to work on myself and with other white people because white people have a stake in the struggle too. It is the ability to relate more openly and develop meaningful relations with people; on a larger scale, it is about dismantling oppressive power relations that remain intact when we don’t act.