“Try to make it safe for people to be wrong [when talking about racism]. Part of that is including myself in the wrong-ness.” – Sally Kohn
Facing Race 2014, a national conference about racial justice, was held in Dallas, TX this year and I had the privilege of attending as a representative of Hollaback. It was the largest Facing Race ever with 1,600 attendees and its accompanying hashtag #FacingRace2014 trended nationally as people documented conference highlights on social media. It’s been a few days since the last plenary session and I’m still trying to soak it all in. What weighs heavy on my mind as I make sense of everything is the consistent messaging for us, racial justice activists, to be kind.
From the first event, the biggest names in the racial justice world dropped bombs of knowledge followed by encouragement for us all to call people in and not call people out, as Jaime-Jin Lewis of the organization Border Crossers said. Lewis told us to look towards a future movement that is based on healing. Rinku Sen, President of Race Forward, then told us to, “lower our litmus tests for friends and allies, and trust that people become anti-racist by doing racial justice work”. These notions aren’t new nor are they bad, but I was surprised at this consistent messaging and the honesty of the speakers.
As a woman of color, I value being in majority people of color spaces because they’re so rare. I feel safe to vent about racism without a filter and there’s solidarity in our struggles. This conference was speaking to a majority audience of color and the repetitive suggestions for us to “lower our litmus test” were blunt requests to do better that I hadn’t heard in that setting before. The esteemed speakers and presenters weren’t asking us to shut up or stop getting angry, which is what sometimes can happen when asked to be kind; they were calling for us to have empathy and compassion.
Six community organizers from the Ferguson, MO protests spoke about their work on day 2 of the conference bright and early at 8:00am. They were asked what the best thing is that we, as racial justice activists, can do to support them. The resounding answer was to go home to our communities and talk to people about racism; create a dialogue about what life is like for people of color. Having those difficult conversations is needed work and a first step in making sure people remember the names of young men like Mike Brown because every community has a Mike Brown.
I found myself thinking about all of this and feeling, for the first time, like venting or a safe space is not the priority. This people of color-focused space that I hold so sacred was not meant for emotional release this weekend. Hip Hop Legend and activist Jay Smooth described it best as balancing self-care and the needed catharsis of telling someone off who’s being racist while not always resorting to those reactions as a default. I’ve been contemplating since then: what is my default — righteous anger? Is that all it is or do I couple it with some compassion?
Just when I thought there was nothing else anyone could possibly say that I hadn’t already heard, the final plenary blew me away. Ian Haney Lopez, Van Jones and Rinku Sen together were a trifecta of nuance on the next 50 years of the racial justice movement. Ian Haney Lopez pushed us to fight the concept of non-Whiteness within communities of color and complicated the popular belief that White folks will be in the minority in 2042. This prediction depends on whether or not the definition of Whiteness expands and with many White Latinos self-identifying as White, the percentage of White folks in the USA could actually increase in 50 years. Van Jones came on stage and told us all to expand our hustle by leveraging technology to make our own money, not depending on the mostly White male technocracy of Silicon Valley to dictate the gadgets and apps we use. And finally, Rinku Sen brought it all home as she actually told us not to place people on our “shit list” (yes, her word choice! so perfect) for making mistakes and reiterated the need to have difficult conversations about race. She did not hold back in telling the movement that we need to be more compassionate than we are right now. My favorite moment was when she voiced her dislike of critiquing one another on Twitter and urged us to hold each other accountable for mistakes both in person and in private.
Facing race is difficult not just because the oppression we’re confronting is at a larger structural level, but it hits people of color at the personal level, too. Resulting trauma makes it difficult to see through the righteous anger we have; but this year’s conference was a wake-up call for our compassion. The wisdom from this year’s conference is settling in with me now and I’m taking a closer look at how I define a friend and racial justice ally. Social media has made us all especially easy subjects of scrutiny and it’s also easier to scrutinize one another than ever before. It’s time to create a better balance of self-care and reexamine what our defaults are so we can be in a place to discuss racism with many others, and ultimately grow the movement to end it.