By Raleigh Keagan, LABB Member Action Associate
Earlier this week, nearly all staff of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade attended a workshop hosted by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Focused on organizing communities and anti-racism, the People’s Institute was founded 32 years ago by a professor from Ohio and a local from Treme, both organizers in their respective neighborhoods. The organization now not only does trainings throughout the country, but also internationally, having trained approximately 600,000 individuals to-date.
We had the privilege of participating in their Community Workshop for Undoing Racism. We discussed things that made us uncomfortable- all white, black, Asian and Latino/Hispanic present. But we also talked about things that made us think, about invisible influences in our lives that force the direction of society. And we discussed how we play right into those influences, whether knowingly or in ignorance. It takes a lot to be aware of the factors and forces that affect your life on a daily basis. As one participant so cleverly explained, “it’s like a fish trying to see the water around them.”
A main focus of the workshop was trying to make us comfortable with talking about race. Their theory goes (and I must agree) that in order to beneficially contribute to a group afflicted by “racism”, then you need to first understand what racism is. But in order to understand what it is, you first need to be able to talk about it! It is still very taboo to openly discuss race in this country, and it leaves very little hope of getting anywhere with the issue if we never talk about it; even though it couldn’t be more present to this day.
But before we even uttered the word “race”, we spent half of the workshop focused on communities and poverty, and the systems and institutions that impose their influence through power. These institutions, including but not at all limited to, the political system, the criminal justice system, the media, health care, and the oil and gas industry, make demands on the community, on the individuals, and require compliance. But when we make demands back on the institutions, they don’t reciprocate, turning the relationship abusive.
At the end of the second day, we finally began defining racism. An “ism” is an ideology, a worldview. The workshop broke it down to an equation: Race Prejudice + Power = Racism. Race is a social construct for division; prejudice refers to prejudgment; and power is the institutional influence. When we discussed poor communities, we talked about how all of these institutions are pressing up against the community, imposing their own agendas. But if you were to look at the situation from a different angle, you would see that all of the institutions are actually dependent upon the community for survival. Therefore, the community is really who has the power. When the community fails to realize this, or act upon it, however, it is no fault of the community itself. It is simply the system working how it was designed. The institutions have a vested interested in keeping the community complacent. It is much easier to deplete and degrade a community, and/or their resources, when they aren’t paying attention or making a fuss.
This notion of community empowerment is a lot of what we focus on at the Bucket Brigade. Working directly with the communities who have been affected by the institution, in our case, the oil and gas industry, we work as a support and resource for communities to organize and use their collective power to demand a fair relationship. This workshop can help to make our work more effective by fostering a deeper and more thorough understanding of the communities we primarily work with.
A term we talked about during this workshop was “Gatekeeper.” A Gatekeeper is anyone who regulates the in- and out- flow of information between the community and the institutions. This is a very powerful position. But with power, comes responsibility. Gatekeepers have a responsibility to share information- that is accurate- with the community to keep them informed. Simple unawareness of the issues affecting them is sadly a staple in many poor communities; especially those next to hazardous or toxic facilities.
The first day of the workshop, Dr. Kimberley Richards, one of our trainers, referred to someone who had played around with the word AMERICA and discovered that it spelled out I-AM-RACE. Ironically, or rather, fittingly, this goes nicely with our “melting pot” concept. It clashes a bit, however, with the overwhelming majority of our historical actions. We were the first country that created a society based on white supremacy. There are numerous constitutional laws that inherently benefited “whites”, and marginalized or completely excluded “non-whites”. The 1790 Naturalization Law described some of the first requirements for American citizenship. ”Any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 declared “an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.” The Immigration and Naturalization Law of 1952 was created with the intention of excluding specific immigrants from coming to America. The reasons for excluding certain groups and admitting others was purely institutional, and had everything to do with maintaining the fragmented societal and racial structure that had been benefiting whites and marginalizing non-whites for over a century and a half.
Through this process of laws and actions and words, manifested a dichotomous, yet interrelated societal existence through Internalized Racial Oppression (IRO). IRO is the multi-generational, dehumanizing process of dis-empowerment. It has affected us in two different ways, distinguished by the color of our skin. If you are white, it has affected you with Superiority. If you are not white, you are influenced with Inferiority to the system. While the influence has the same definition on paper, in actuality it transfers quite differently to the two groups because of the historical and political and economic etc. factors. Whites have been legitimized in the eyes of society, of the institutions, and ourselves, due to the superficial advantages we have been given in the legal system throughout almost the entire existence of our country. And non-whites have been disenfranchised throughout most, if not all of their time since first arriving in America.
Near the end of the workshop, we did an exercise where we were asked to write down why we liked being the color that we were. This made everybody uncomfortable, as the instructors expected. But the answers were worth it. After we had gone around the room, a pattern became clear. Those who were not white kept saying how proud they were of their culture and their physical features and their heritage. I found it interesting that many of things they said they were so proud of were many of the same things they had historically been criticized for. It was apparent that they had empowered themselves to take those criticisms and turn them into pride. It was a very encouraging thing to see.
For me, this workshop was an eye-opening experience. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to discuss these issues openly with those who have a much more comprehensive understanding of the interrelated factors and forces surrounding racism today and throughout history. While this workshop did not offer a “quick fix” for racism, that was not its intention. These trained professionals understand that undoing racism is a process, and the workshop is only the beginning.
United States Congress, “An act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization” (March 26, 1790). H105, American History I, Fall 2010 (Prof. Konstantin Dierks). http://www.indiana.edu/~kdhist/H105-documents-web/week08/naturalization1790.html
 Information excerpted from Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources From the National Archives. [Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.] pp. 82-85. http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=47
US immigration legislation online. H.R. 13342; Pub.L. 414; 182 Stat. 66. 82nd Congress; June 27, 1952. http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1952_immigration_and_nationality_act.html