I live in a pretty incredible town. Decatur, GA is a small city adjacent to Atlanta. It is just 4 square miles. Decatur has gone through many changes over the last twenty years. It’s a historically black city, where many black families moved after being displaced by the construction of highways through their Atlanta neighborhoods (Urban Renewal = Negro Removal). Decatur has an award-winning school district, a very high walkability score and a small town feel in the middle of the bustle of Atlanta. In recent years, Decatur’s demographics have changed a lot. Decatur is no longer majority black or working class. Many of the cozy bungalows that raised generations of families have been razed or renovated to fit the tastes of wealthier families. White children now make up the majority of the school population at over 70%.
The Decatur Education Foundation sponsored a 2-day workshop in Courageous Conversations for teachers, administrators, parents and other interested stakeholders to work on recognizing and addressing white supremacy. The workshop was offered specifically to help us, as a community, address issues around racial equity in education that are vexing the school district.
I signed up to attend as an involved parent and concerned citizen.
Now Reader, I was already in my feelings because I am generally uncomfortable having the conversations I know are necessary to bridge divides and build the Beloved Community. But I can’t talk about it if I’m not willing to be about it, so I signed up and rode over to the training with my neighbor who is a white parent at our kids’ school. We sat the same table with 3 other black women and one other white woman. Our table got along really well. We did exercises together discussing the achievement gap for black kids and blatant racialized codes in advertising. Everything was going smoothly. As a black woman in the world, I felt smugly confident that I knew about white supremacy and was ready to jump into learning about tools to dismantle it.
However, you cannot dismantle what you do not fully understand. So our facilitator led us through discussions about our own backgrounds and about the broader structures that created and maintain white supremacy. We completed self-assessments to allow us to check in with ourselves to figure out how we were feeling and whether we needed to adjust before being able to move on productively. Toward the end of Day 1, we all took the White Privilege Questionnaire. I strongly encourage each of you to take it. Essentially, you answer questions about your everyday life and rate how easy it is to, say, find a place to get your hair done or find books that reflect your life and family. You score 5 if it’s very easy, 3 if it’s sometimes easy, 0 if it’s difficult. It only takes a few minutes and it delivers a strong assessment of our society from a point of view many of us don’t usually take.
I scored 15. No big deal, I think. Then I glanced over at my neighbor’s sheet and she scored….wait for it…..130!!! I was gobsmacked. I just stared and said, “130?! I didn’t even know you could get in the triple digits!” And she just glanced at my 15 and replied, “Yeah..” trailing off to an uncomfortable silence.
Afterwards, in an activity called The Color Line we were instructed to line up around the room in a semi-circle in order of our scores. Everyone with scores of 100+ was white and all of the black people with our paltry 3s, 9s and even 0s(!) were clustered at the other end. Black people who lived in majority black neighborhoods and self-reported that they didn’t have many non-black friends scored higher than those of us who lived in majority white neighborhoods. There were a few women of Asian descent sprinkled in the middle. We held a paper with our score written on it in large print and stood in the semicircle staring at each other in silence.
I felt hollowed out. All of the education and late nights and striving and sacrifices had still landed me and my fellow black women in the You’ll-Never-Really-Belong-Here section. That cut me deep. Because I love the United States. There is nowhere else on the planet I would rather live. This is the country that my ancestors bled in and built up. Here is where my people created the blues, jazz, gospel, rock, hip hop and a culture that has been exported all over the world as *the* it culture. Here is where a young woman from Kentucky and a young man from Panama met up, fell in love and made me. I respect the struggle, the achievements against all odds and the pace of progress that is slow but steady. I love Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July Speech and Robert Kennedy’s Ripple of Hope speech. Here is the only place I want to be. And why can’t I crack into it? Why can’t I truly belong?
As we stood, watching each other, the white people standing across the room shifted uncomfortably in their privilege and looked at the floor or the ceiling. Tears started welling up in my eyes. And then I got angry. WHY, I wanted to know, do black bodies have to be humiliated and put on display so that we can prove to white people that racism exists? WHY was this exercise necessary?! By the time we were dismissed in silence I was HOT. I screamed to a black friend who was there, “What was the point of all the struggle and sacrifice to still end up on the bottom?!” We had all worked so hard. Our parents and ancestors had all worked so hard. What did we have to show for it? If I am the hope and the dream of the slave and I can’t go shopping without being trailed like a suspected shoplifter, what are we doing?!
I really did not want to go back to the second day of the training. What would be the point of being further humiliated and having my face rubbed in it for a second day? But then I put on my Selma chain. It’s a silver pendant of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. I bought it while on a trip with Shannon Wright to attend the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I wear this necklace when I need strength and support. I hold the bridge between my thumb and forefinger and remember what it was like to stand on the bridge and imagine myself caught between a phalanx of violent police on horseback and the yawning Alabama River below. I press my fingers into the print of the bridge and think about Amelia Boynton, 54 years old at the time of the march. She had been a civil rights activist in Selma for decades. On Bloody Sunday she was beaten unconscious and left in the road by mounted police. Because she wanted to be able to vote. She and her family had been threatened with violent, ugly deaths, but she kept getting up. Boynton participated in all of the Selma marches and finally marched triumphantly all the way to Birmingham with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was born in 1911 and died in 2015. If Amelia could get up and go back to face the angry officers and their neighing, kicking horses, I guess I could get up and go back to the air-conditioned conference room and subject myself to emotional discomfort.
So I did. The facilitator asked us how we felt after the Color Line exercise. In line with the rules of the conversation, I spoke my truth. The facilitator told us that our scores are not a reflection of our worth. For a Type A person for whom scores are a reflection of your worth, that was hard to swallow. Our scores, she said, are a reflection of the sickness of white privilege: it sets us against each other, it keeps us separate and siloed, fearful and alone.
It took me a long time to write this post because I struggled to process that experience, and I’m still processing it. I wholeheartedly encourage folks to read Courageous Conversations by Glenn E. Singleton and to participate in the training if it comes to you.
The workshop was a few months ago. Here in Decatur we are still trying to work through issues of educational equity. We are also trying to figure out affordable housing, how to allow long-time residents to age in place in an increasingly expensive city, and how to slow down the traffic careening through residential areas. We don’t have any of it all figured out, but a community, a Beloved Community, is a journey that we have to go on together – courageously. I wish you all fortitude and luck.