Salons at Stowe
THEM: Images and Attitudes that Separate Us
Featured Guest Opening Remarks and Reaction to the exhibit THEM: Images of Separation
Tokuji Okamoto (Our Piece of the Pie):
THEM: Images of Separation is a powerful exhibit. Before I came tonight I was unsure of what I would be seeing. I have been reading a lot about racism in America and about how people have a backward idea of how people perceive others of darker skin. Racism justifies slavery in this country. It is institutional. Slavery was created by very powerful people and racism allowed them to profit. The legacy still continues.
The media wants to tell us that acts like we see in the exhibit are individual acts and that we live in a post-racial society, but this can’t be further from the truth.
The exhibit makes me think of Trayvon Martin or Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, and Oscar Grant. The examples go on and on. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement just put out a report stating that 110 people were killed outside the rule of law. This is something bigger than individual acts. It stems from institutional racism.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow talks about how the US imprisons more people in the world.
1 out of every 8 people in prison on the planet is African American. That is 12% of the prison population of the whole world and African Americans make up only .6% of the world population.
Rabbi Donna Berman (Charter Oak Cultural Center):
Someone told me a theory about the origins of racism and prejudice that might be shocking. It was a psychotherapist who said that if we are hated by our parents, we will experience hate in our bodies and project it out to others. It is very difficult for people to see whether they are hated by their parents. Hatred is always psychotic.
I was frightened by the THEM exhibit.
Hatred is the projection of what we dislike or are fearful about in ourselves. An action step is that we need to own our shadow sides. If we don’t have compassion for ourselves, we can’t have compassion for others.
One of the bases for prejudice is scapegoating. It’s easy to pass blame and very often we as individuals scapegoat and sometimes it is even the government and the rhetoric that is used that pulls us in.
When you look around so many of the images in the exhibit were created after 2000.
Post 9/11 we have seen more of these issues.
You shall not oppress the stranger, for you are strangers in the land of Egypt is stated 36 times in the Torah, the most sacred of Jewish text.
There is also the concept of Destructive and Constructive Entitlement. If you have pain, you can cause harm to others and feel justified, or you can decide not to do that.
The Charter Oak Cultural Center (COCC) provides a safe place to share ideas through art, dance, and more. The arts are a wonderful vehicle for bringing people together. They aren’t threatening.
Five years ago, COCC created a replica exhibit of the Anne Frank secret annex. There was a white wall with a timeline that led to a bookcase. Many people would walk, follow the timeline and think that this was the end of the exhibit. They didn’t realize that the bookcase opened, and isn’t that the point. When they opened the door they all gasped and said “there’s a whole world in there”. Prejudice, the unwillingness to open the door and see the beautiful world that’s inside.
Dr. Salome Raheim (UConn School of Social Work):
We all come with a different history based on age, socio-economic status, gender, race, etc. We all experience the exhibit differently and we all experience the world differently.
I identify in a certain ways and my experiences impact how I see the world and how the world sees me, it impacts the opportunities that I have. Those are the lenses that I speak through.
The exhibit was powerful. My heart still hurts. If I was unmoved that would be a problem. There are many pieces in the exhibit that are very personal to me.
Here is a way to approach this: Acknowledge, Accept, Act.
Acknowledge that words and images have power. We often think that they don’t have power. We think of the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones…” Words and images perpetuate ideas about people and these ideas can be fatal. Short of killing people they can put people in places that constrain their lives. Words have power to shape our reality. Social institutions can reproduce some of those ideas. If we acknowledge this we can impact what we allow in our presence.
We need to Accept our individual power to take leadership and make change. On the individual level, if we learn more about how words and images have an impact, that positions us to make a difference. If we accept that we can make a difference then we can make choices. Choices of what we buy, the conversations that we participate in, etc. We have to be teachable and we have to learn more. It is important that we listen to the stories of others, how people are impacted and take it from their perspective. Saying “I don’t understand” is a declaration that will keep you there. “How can I understand?” opens the door for conversation and change.
No one is exempt from Us vs. Them thinking. I saw myself in those images in the exhibit, and this doesn’t mean that I haven’t had my own stereotypes.
Act, if we acknowledge and accept, we can make choices and act. Acting includes identifying our sphere of influence, which is ongoing. Who do I have influence with, who is watching me, who is emulating me, whose behavior might I influence. Beyond the individual level, we can join with other people and have a broad sphere.
The point is not to leave the exhibit or this discussion and say “ain’t it awful,” it is saying lets commit to act and make a difference.
Reverend Michael C. Williams:
When I get together with people and have these conversations about race and racism it usually comes down to “doesn’t it feel like racism has gotten worse since Barack Obama was elected President?” The issue of race is more of an issue today than it has been in a long time. “Did Affirmative Action really work and did immigration really benefit us?” These are deep and painful conversations when we look at our society. We face inequities in an era of integration.
In the exhibit I was immediately hit with thoughts. Images have power, what gives those images its power? There is a serious and more dramatic attempt to maintain a sense of white supremacy in this country. It is an all out war to assure that that is not disrupted. Any disruption destroys a paradigm that has created an empire where a small percentage of people benefit.
A three legged stool holds white supremacy up:
1. Theology of this country (European Western Christianity) There is not anger when images that are false are presented to us. The person portrayed as Jesus did not look like the image that is presented to us. There is no outcry to say stop that or portray him as the historical description would. We are receiving comfort in the system that allows this.
2. Economic system (capitalism). In order for it to work people have to perform in the classes they are assigned to. There is a meaning, not just a salary, behind “middle class folks” and the same is true for all classes.
3. Political: We have allowed ourselves to be polarized in political parties. We allow the two-party system to control our thoughts and behaviors. An example is that blacks can’t be Republicans or else they are sellouts.
Until we get serious about making change, the images in this exhibit will continue. One of the most powerful statements is Dr. King’s quote: “We're caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny” We have created a delusion that we have escaped, but we are still in it, we are still connected.
Audience Comment: It was mentioned that racism has gotten worse, but it also feels like the prejudice is more on a level of economic class.
Michael Williams’ response: There is an inability for black people and white people to talk about race in a different way, because of what has happened politically. There is an attitude that black people should stop whining since there is a black president. To have a conversation about race during the Obama administration is often viewed as more difficult than ever. The class conversations are there in this economy, but there is a belief that this President is only out to support black folks and that he is pandering to the stereotypical. The inability to have a serious conversation causes some serious acting out and can be destructive.
Audience Comment: The younger generation uses social networks and it doesn’t necessarily turn into a these difficult conversations about race. Who is having these difficult conversations, who is thinking so negatively?
Michael Williams’ response: My children’s description of racism is different than the generation before them, but its impact is the same. This conversation is had in faith communities many times among baby boomers. They begin to realize all of the micro inequities that they faced, like why wasn’t I invited out to lunch, why didn’t I get an invitation to a certain meeting? Many didn’t say anything because of fear of losing their jobs. In the corporate world, upper management and executive leadership is a lot less diverse. In counseling people facing layoffs in the corporate sphere, there is a fear and expectation to conform to the dominant culture is more and more pronounced. There is not a lot of liberty in the workplace. You have to check yourself.
Audience Comment: Look at what happened with the boy scouts this week. It is about respect for others.
Salome Raheim’s response: Civility is critical. Taking on more respectful attitudes would be an advancement. However, civility can be a veneer for politeness. In order for us to move past what separates us we need to get to a level of truth-telling. We have to acknowledge that the “-isms” exists, learn more, understand ourselves, and hopefully get to a time when there is a word that goes beyond civility and reflects an understanding of others. A level of acceptance and appreciation. Without institutional change the attitudes and behaviors will perpetuate. If everyone was civil then it would be safe for me to go into certain environments.
Donna Berman’s response: You can be civil and be honest. But what about political correctness.
Audience Comment: Working for the state and Affirmative Action work, racism in the workplace exists. A manager won’t say anything that will send you to file a complaint. You might come out of an interview thinking you were treated equally, but you were not. Sometimes individuals who could do something are so afraid of retaliation and isolation. You have to take risks and take necessary actions to create change.
Audience Comment: Empathy. That’s what goes beyond being civil. What we fear is what we don’t understand. We all can be as open minded as we imagine we are. I was recently in a discussion about the importance of humanities. Humanities teach us what we don’t understand. We don’t talk about these issues. It needs to go beyond the words. We need to be willing to listen to someone we don’t agree with or someone we don’t have anything in common with and that is hard to do.
Michael Williams: A good majority of Americans get their information about others from the media. What we think about each other isn’t what we want to think, it’s about what we are told to think.
Salome Raheim: It starts in school. The educational process perpetuates these thoughts. Textbooks tell a certain story. Education sets up perspectives, who’s in the foreground, who’s in the background. It doesn’t help us think critically. People are presented and events are presented to students in one-dimensional ways. Sometimes it takes until grad school for someone to tell you to think critically. In order to get to empathy and compassion we need to develop the ability to question what is presented to us. We can create a new world only if we question and are open to taking it in and not demonizing.
Audience Comment: Trinity College had a democracy series of films in the Fall. One was The Wave. It was a Them and Us theme. The psychology of the human being that leads us where we are. We want to deal with these things, but it is so difficult. The Wave was about a group of students, and a teacher that started a Them and Us movement and the students ran with it. The students who wanted to do the right thing were overpowered. This is what we see in our world today.
Audience Comment: Think about the title of this Salon, “Images and attitudes that separate us.” How will we get past this if we continue to be so separated? There is a continued segregation in our society, especially in schools. The racism that this country has broadened and has gotten a lot deeper. There have to be racist roots in the hatred towards Obama. There is more of that coming out because white America anticipates and feels they are overwhelmed. A majority of the country will eventually be non-white. Also, the majority in this country and the bystanders are as passive as they’ve ever been. When we look at bullying, it is the enablers and the passive bystanders that let it grow and continue.
Donna Berman: Hatred is psychotic. The arbitrariness of racism and social construction of it all is to manipulate people and plot us against each other. There is the story about Malaga island. This was a real island, off the coast of Maine, where freed slaves were brought after the Civil War. They had nothing and they created something. In 1912, Maine decided that tourism was rising so they went to the island, exhumed the buried, took everyone who lived there and dumped them on the mainland. Recently, the Governor of Maine was going to the island to make an apology, but they didn’t invite the descendants. This fall is the 100th anniversary of their removal from the island. There was a meeting in Maine, the white and black descendants were separated in the room, but then someone said, we are all from the same exact family. It was all intermarriage. This shows that it is all about perception.
Michael Williams: The phenomena of segregation today, the model today usually looks like this: 9 white people and 1 white person. That is integration, not segregation. You never see a TV show with 9 black people and one white person. There is a push to the younger generation that says, if you want to integrate you have to lose a lot of what you have. You could lose your history, your culture, and change who you were in order to be accepted and assimilated into a larger culture. Young people have tried this and realized it doesn’t work, so they are creating there own. From 15 to 30 years old, it is not that big of a deal, the challenge of race is more complicated after 30.
Audience Comment: About words and images having power, I think of the comments about the girls basketball team from a couple years ago. Black parents, especially black mothers have had to make sure that our kids feel good about themselves. We spend time and money on this. You want them to know that they are OK no matter who you are. A teacher at my daughter’s child development center said to me once that I didn’t comb my daughter’s hair when she came in with an afro. I went to my car and sobbed. It is a journey, it is a tough, rigorous journey. We want our kids to feel empowered and know that they are something special. When we are 50 we can say these things with confidence, we have earned that in our journey. We are trying to overcome these images and attitudes.
My daughter never experienced being called a derogatory word until going to North Carolina. It sent shock waves. You don’t go to work and give 100%, you go to work and give 120%. There’s good in all people. You need to work to make change. We can make a difference by being honest.
Audience Comment: My school is an International Baccalaureate school in a predominantly African American neighborhood. There are less than 10 black students in my grade. In our school we learn a lot about other cultures and how we interact and what can be done. Our program is segregated from others in the school. We are being exposed to more people and more ideas. The program is meant to foster understanding globally. If we don’t have the ability to stress education, we cannot change the structure after school.
Audience Comment: My personal experience living in South Carolina is that I only faced racism within my own racial group of African Americans. When given the opportunity people will oppress. If you have a group of conscious people and you are dealing with this hatred, the question is how do we act?
Audience Comment: Many of us might live in homogenous communities. We should include our children in situations where they grow up and have experiences with people that are different than they are. If you start when they are little it is their world.
Salome Raheim: Racism is craziness, but it is not caused by a human defect. It is created by a structure that is in place that makes people crazy. The answer is to work for more just and equitable structures. Environments and structures can bring out the worst in us or the best in us. We need to work for social justice.
Donna Berman: This might sound naïve, but the answer is love. Hatred needs to be met with love.
Tokuji Okamoto: A lot discussion is about what we can do within our own selves. We need to consider what we can do collectively. Words and images can have power, but we forget how much power we can have ourselves. Youth can transform, we can transform. There are huge institutional problems and it takes more than an individual to create this large scale change. Completely starting anew is the way we need to create real change. We need to get past the taboos. Our power is in the streets. Any gains we have gotten in recent movements started from organization of people and then the politicians follow.
Please leave your thoughts and comments here!
And join us on Tuesday, August 21st for Confront Prejudice-Build Community
An enlightening workshop by Dr. William Howe where you will view how you question "others".
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Welcome to the conversation!
Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811-1896) best-selling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), made her the most famous American woman of the 19th century and galvanized the abolition movement before the Civil War.
The Stowe Center is a 21st-century museum and program center using Stowe's story to inspire social justice and positive change.
The Salons at Stowe programs are a forum to connect the challenging issues (race, gender and class) that impelled Stowe to write and act with the contemporary face of those same issues. The Salon format is based on a robust level of audience participation, with the explicit goal of promoting civic engagement. Recent topics included: Teaching Acceptance; Is Prison the New Slavery; Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North; Creativity and Change; Race, Gender and Politics Today; How to be an Advocate
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