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Anti-racism dialogues help open eyes

Anti-racism dialogues
Kirk Petersen

Here’s a fun idea: How would you like to give up two Saturdays to sit in a room and talk about racism?

I did this the first two Saturdays of October, and can report that there was much less discomfort than I expected. In fact, the overall experience was rewarding and enjoyable.

The diocese requires that all clergy, or anyone holding a diocesan office or committee membership must take part in “Namaste: Anti-Racism Dialogues,” or a similar program offered by another diocese. (Namaste is a Hindu greeting of respect.)

“The goal is for us to raise consciousness and awareness” of racial issues, said the Rev. Canon Greg Jacobs, Canon to the Ordinary. There’s an impression that “we as a country have been there, done that,” adding that the election of Barack Obama as president led many people to think “oh, race is no longer an issue… some past legacies of racism that pop up in society are aberrations.”

“The events of the last eight months or a year have reinforced the necessity for having these kinds of conversations,” Jacobs said. “There is a deep racial divide in this country.”

The program I attended included a diverse group of about 15 clergy and lay members of a variety of churches in the diocese: Old and young, black and white, gay and straight, male and female.

The facilitators from the Namaste committee took great care to establish ground rules for respecting the opinions of others, focusing on the difference between dialogue and debate. I told the group that in writing about this I would not share anything that was said during the discussions. But I can report that the tone was respectful throughout. At one point, another participant disagreed quite emphatically with something I had just said – without triggering any defensiveness or annoyance on my part.

There was extensive discussion of concepts like white privilege and internalized oppression, and some of the white participants were surprised to learn that even former Attorney General Eric Holder felt the need to have “the talk” with his children – about how to act in any encounter with the police, to reduce the likelihood of violence.

During breaks, I asked other participants about their reactions to the program.

Dale Ellis, a black man from St. Andrew & Holy Communion in South Orange, said “I learned that some of the things I experienced in my childhood… that it wasn’t just me, it was happening to people across the board. It’s much bigger than just me.”

“I’m not responsible for [how I got] my own white privilege, but I have it, and I get to exercise it,” said the Rev. Bob Solon, the long-term supply priest at St. James’, Hackettstown. “It’s like the air that I breathe, and I can choose to do something about it – but part of that privilege is, I don’t have to, because I’m white.”

“I’ve been through this training two or three times before,” most recently a decade ago, said Edith Gallimore, a black woman from Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral, Newark. “It’s drastically different, and so much better.”