Freedom School, Part II: Seeing how racism and poverty play out in our own lives
The "growing edge" can be uncomfortable, but going there helps Freedom School participants confront their own relationships to power.Photo: AFSC
This is the second part in an essay on the 22nd Tyree Scott Freedom School held in Seattle.
By the second day of Freedom School, we were in the thick of it. Conversations were not always easy as they entered the territory of the “growing edge.”
On day two, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) leaders led an activity that visually illustrated how close each student was to the “American dream” based on questions about income level, racial identification, education, and family.
After we stepped forward or backward based on our “yes” or “no” answers to each question, we looked around at our own “starting positions” on the way to the American dream’s promise of health and prosperity in relationship to others.
I gazed at those around me—all nearer to the American dream than most and all racially identified as “white”—and those several yards to the back, who were mostly black and mostly not attending elite Seattle private schools.
The vast social divisions created by racism and poverty were made tangible as we stood reflecting on our positions.
Culture and power
Later in the week, we started discussion one morning by addressing a concern that a YUIR leader, Khoa, had brought to Dustin’s attention the day before.
He thought that an activity we did the previous day called “What I Like About Being…” had potentially caused more division than understanding among the group.
In the activity, students were asked to identify with an institutional racial category, like “white” or “Asian/Pacific Islander,” and then explain what they like about being identified as such.
White students in the room listed things like “safety,” being able to “escape” thinking about racism, and having those in power listen when they spoke up. Students of color listed “hospitality,” style and hair, food, and a mutual sense of “I’ve got your back” among people of color. Reflecting on the lists, white students noticed that “white culture” seemed “boring” compared to the other lists.
Dustin jumped in to point out that the activity wasn’t asking about “culture” but about institutional categories of identification. The activity shows that “whiteness” mainly denotes institutional privilege, while highlighting the cultural strategies people of color must retain in order to survive and thrive together in racist society.
He explained that cultural differences among immigrant groups, like Jews and Irish, had been sacrificed in order to obtain white privilege in the U.S. Khoa’s concerns about the divisiveness of the activity were valid. Racial and social divisions have historically been summoned as a strategy to “divide and conquer,” preventing cross-racial movements that would threaten those in power.
Dustin argued, however, that the activity brought us to the “learning edge” by forcing us to confront our own relationships to power, to figure out our own “places within the movement.”
The process of crossing the social chasms created by racism and poverty, which we were made aware of as we looked at our disparate positions in relationship to the “American dream” earlier in the week, is a necessary and difficult process that requires ongoing critical reflection on how we imagine ourselves and others in the world.
This link between the imagination, how we see and know truth, and the concrete and collective work of antiracist organizing became crucial as we moved from critical analysis to taking action.
Next, read part III: “Undoing racism in Seattle’s criminal justice system”