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Guest Opinion: Explaining the black experience

This is in response to the guest opinion by Elizabeth Perle, who felt a poem about racism and the black experience, performed by Shanessa Sweeney during the OSF Green Show on Sept. 17, had “crossed the line.”

Taking issue with profanity in the poem is quite understandable, given the venue, but the bulk of Perle’s complaint was about feeling “scolded” by a black poet who “had a militant presence that was akin to extremism.” She interpreted the poet’s artistic expression of grief and outrage as a “blatant attack” on the community of Ashland, an unwarranted lecture for a town that is already “extremely tolerant” and “not to blame” for racism. She then pre-empted any criticism by offering, as non-racist credentials, her experience of having had a black best friend in her youth.

Perle’s opinion exemplifies the difficulty in discussing race and racism with white people. She assumes, as many good and kind white people do, that because she doesn’t use racial slurs or attend Klan meetings, she can’t be part of the problem. She believes that racism is an affliction of the “mentally deranged” and is an irrelevant topic for a community as “educated” and “open-minded” as Ashland.

It is difficult to get across to well-meaning white people how very different the day-to-day experiences of black people are. It is hard to explain to those who have benefited all their lives from a social structure that for no logical reason places them at the top, that the structure itself is flawed, ugly and dangerous. It is sometimes hard for them to grasp that you can enjoy white privilege without enjoying cross-burnings, that privilege is simply the luxury of assumptions only white people can make safely, like knowing that the police officer walking toward you only wants to help. Finally, it is very frustrating when black people are put in a position of having to protect a white person’s feelings when trying to discuss race.

White fragility is a term coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white professor of multicultural education, to explain the defensive behaviors of white people when forced to face their own privilege. DiAngelo says: “In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable and thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. When racial discomfort arises, whites typically ... blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color) ... White insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced.”

Perle wants OSF and others to stop talking about race, or at least to discuss it with more “discernment,” whatever that means. “Let’s not call out the injustices,” she pleads, and suggests that the best way to deal with our country’s long history of slavery and discrimination may be to “move forward and forget it.”

Black people would like nothing more than to be able to move forward. We would love our daily practice of “mindfulness” to be in the Buddhist sense in which she uses it, rather than in the sense of “be mindful not to be perceived as a threat.” We would love to move from the big city to a charming liberal town, as Perle did, and live without the stigma of race. But no matter where we go in America, we are still black.

Perle was made so uncomfortable by Shanessa Sweeney’s poem that she felt compelled to write the newspaper to document her own lack of racism and indignantly defend Ashland against a black poet’s “verbal bullying.” If a mere poem can prompt such indignation, we look forward to her outrage at the most recent news of yet another inexcusable slaughter of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. So long as well-meaning white people remain uncomfortable talking about their whiteness, men like Terence Crutcher will keep dying due to their blackness.

— Alma Rosa Alvarez of Ashland is a founding member of the Racial Equity Coalition. Jennifer Ware of Medford is also a member. They wrote this opinion on behalf of all members of the Racial Equity Coalition.