As I walked into the Chicon Collective for our first Diversity Discussion Dinner of the year, I was anxious to be sitting down with so many new faces in an unfamiliar place and being expected to discuss a difficult topic like our experience of race–specifically, what it’s like to be black in Austin. I couldn’t imagine it going well and my faith in open dialogue waned. I made jolted and awkward small talk and greeted the people I knew well; I was reminded once again that being uncomfortable is uncomfortable.
I was reminded once again that being uncomfortable is uncomfortable.
But then the discussion began and Sam reiterated the vision of this year’s dinners. She explained her dissatisfaction with the lack of diversity in her life and her intention to cultivate diversity through dialogue. Then it transitioned to Damita, Sam’s coworker and organizational partner. She opened up about her childhood growing up black in Austin. She described the 11th and 12th street of her childhood, her family home, the close-knit community, and the few blocks she knew so well. The same blocks that now did not hold a single familiar landmark. And the conversation had begun–a personal story of the effects of gentrification–but her openness and maternal demeanor had eased my tension.
With each subsequent question and answer, I became less nervous and more excited. The atmosphere was honest and people were engaged. Without giving you a transcription of the evening I’d like to share a few of the questions asked and a few responses that stuck with me, as well as a bit of reflection from me in italics.
Is the racial divide in the US growing or shrinking?
“It can have velocity without acceleration. It’s moving forward even if it’s not getting faster.”
“It isn’t necessarily growing, but it is has become more visible over the past two years.”
Reflection: It has become more visible to those who are not directly affected by it on a day to day basis, those who have the privilege to not notice. As media coverage increases it may seem like a new problem or that the racial divide is growing to those of us who didn’t have to worry about it before.
What do you value/ enjoy most about being black?
“Moments of solidarity and comfort. If you are in a room, a meeting, or a restaurant and there is another black individual present, even without speaking to them, there is a feeling of shared experience, comfort, and understanding.”
“The vibrancy, life, and laughter found in the black community.”
“Experiencing immense difficulty leads to a sense of resilience and life that otherwise may be hard to find.”
Reflection: The room lit up, and was a buzz of positivity that it couldn’t be when we were discussing micro-aggressions or the history of oppression or systematic racism in the US etc. I couldn’t help but wonder about the worth of experience and shared identity. Sometimes I feel as if minorities are expected to give up their culture and communities to experience equality but is that worth it? What part of your identity do you lose in the process? I didn’t get the chance to ask so for now I don’t know.
How often are you aware of your race in your daily life?
“All the time, especially in a professional setting. Having to dress a certain way, talk a certain way as to make the white people around me comfortable.”
“A white colleague of mine commented that when she spoke to me she understood me just fine, when she spoke to our other black colleague she understood him just fine as well, but that when he and I spoke to one another she had no idea what we were saying.”
Reflection: How do I help but become self conscious of the fact that this was the expectation here as well- that to have a discussion on race and diversity means to make the white people in the room comfortable by assimilating to markers of whiteness… Was I just being overly critical? Can discussion exist outside that mold? I want it to.
In what ways does racism manifest itself on a day to day basis?
“I have to prove my credentials, walking into a professional space I’m not given the benefit of the doubt. My white counterpart walks into the room, states their name and profession, and moves on. I am asked, where did you get your degree? Where have you worked previously?”
Reflection: This seems to be the comment that resonated with most of us listening, those who had experienced and those who had not. So many nods, umhums, and ahs of understanding.
Systematic Racism is not a system we stumbled upon or one that happened by chance, it is intentional, and people are making specific choices that feed into the system of racism because they directly benefit from them.
It is important for me to note that I am not attempting to speak for anyone besides myself in this blog post. These are things that I remember, in the ways that I specifically understood them and processed them and I speak for no one else. Besides, as I was reminded at dinner, there is no one voice or experience and requiring one only silences diversity. Instead there are people willing to come together to share their experiences and create new relationships. Relationships that allow for these questions and answers to be part of something living, not stagnant, immovable or final, but rather something that accommodates for human change and development.
This Discussion Dinner: What It’s Like to Be Black in Austin Recap was graciously penned by Helen Heston.
Thank you to the Chicon Collective for hosting us!
Interested in coming to our next dinner? Check it out.