Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lean In to Discomfort

When the world around you seems to be falling apart, you do your part to start knitting it back together.

By the time I got the notification about the RVA Roundtable on Race, it was full. I felt lame until reading that it filled up in less than an hour. My name went on the waiting list, along with enough others that a second session was scheduled.

My fist thought was to invite Mac to join me since we'd just been discussing this subject a few nights ago. What are inherently privileged white women going to do to make things better? Both of us were willing to join a roomful of strangers to find out.

We set out from my house, she with a fetching straw hat and me with an umbrella, intent on joining Stoplight Gelato for today's grand opening celebration. This long-time J-Ward resident has had to schlep to Carytown for ten years for her ice cream fix.

No more. Love you, Bev's, but sometimes a girl only wants to walk three blocks for frozen dairy product.

The place was bustling, the case full of appealingly rich-looking gelato and within no time, a tiny woman came over to thank us for stopping by. I reversed the thanks, happy to have a source in the 'hood. And unlike some places, portions are sized right, prices are just as fitting and the place oozes charm.

I got a cup of mint chip with chocolate bourbon sauce and Mac went with a sugar cone of coconut to enjoy as we sauntered over to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center for the roundtable, passing by the usual Sunday neighborhood characters in place, some under the shade of large Crepe Myrtle trees with coolers and a radio blaring a soul station, others sweating it out playing basketball in the bright afternoon sun.

Once inside the new museum, we joined participants, taking chairs in one of the small circles already occupied with a black man and woman. A younger white woman soon joined us and we were complete.

Like many facilitated discussions I've attended at the Valentine, the idea was to get us talking, first in our small groups, then together as a larger whole. A few rules- let one person speak at a time, use "I" not "you," but most importantly, "lean into discomfort."

About damn time.

The first questions involved our names and their significance, a subject that provided more fodder for discussion than you might thing.

When asked how many people have had their name mispronounced in their life, probanly close to 90% of the room raised their hand. My name is too basic for that, so I was one of the holdouts.

A woman in the back raised her hand and talked about frequent garbling of her names. "We took phonics out of learning years ago and it messed up the whole world!" she said. Preach it, sister.

Another woman said she'd married a Bobbit, with all the baggage that brought, and a round of laughter erupted. I looked at the young woman in my group and leaned over to ask her if she knew the reference. She didn't.

He was the first man most people read about whose wife had lopped off his member, I explained as her eyes grew wide. We elders have to pass on our knowledge to the young.

Moving through questions and discussions, it was startling to hear some of the stories. One man recalled confusion as a child about the races. "But, Daddy, that man ain't white, he's Jewish!"  One woman told of her father having to pay a poll tax to vote. A SW Virginia resident said the KKK is still very active near where she lives today.

And it wasn't just native Richmonders, either. There were people who came up in the Bronx, Queens, Bed-Stuy and the southside of Chicago, all with interesting experiences when it came to race. One woman spoke of a brother who consistently broke the law, disrespected policemen and never got in any real trouble. Because he was white.

"White privilege means getting second chances," one white woman succinctly said.

After brainstorming how to move forward collectively, we cleared the room, so session number two could convene. It's a start and that's something.

The only logical thing to do was to march our privileged white butts over to the Basement to participate in their "Haikus for Change: Poetry to your legislators" event. I'd already scribbled out a first effort and I talked Mac through creating her own as we walked over to Third.

I was inspired by the scene- some people were being filmed reading their haikus, others quietly writing on the carpet or at high-top tables. All purposeful. I wrote my haiku on a sheet of paper and then wrote another. Name and address of registered voter. Boom. Done.

Seventeen simple syllables each about things that matter to me. They're graciously taking care of the enveloping and mailing to our lawmakers.

We, the people, right? Emphasis on "We."

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