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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Leaving one's comfort zone

On Friday, January 28th, I participated in a panel called "The Grassroots, the Netroots and the DNC: A discussion of progressive participation, party politics & the race for DNC Chair" sponsored by Concerts for Change and Cosmopolity.com.

I asked if I'd be the only person of color on the panel, to which the organizer replied that he had calls in to other folks who had not yet responded. Yeah, right.

I told him that I'd be deeply disturbed if I was the only person of color on the panel, given that 1) it was being held in Manhattan (where there've been known to be colored person or two around), 2) there were many highly talented people of color far more worthy of an invitation than I, and 3) how are you going to talk about the grassroots and the Democratic Party and have one Black guy assuming the role of special envoy of Colored People United. Needless to say, I was not convinced that another person of color would show, so I gave the organizer a list of potential invitees to contact.

When it was all said and done, I decided to jump on a train from Philly to NYC and participate on this panel (at my own expense).

Along side me were fellow bloggers Zephyr Teachout & Duncan "Atrios" Black. Former NY State Democratic Party chair, Judith Hope, showed up a little later. And way towards the end, NY politician Mark Green showed up to do his 5-minute happy pigeon routine: you know, drop in, take a dump, and fly off -- all before the panel's wonderfully jaded and insightful moderator, Micah Sifry of PersonalDemocracy.com, could run him over for being the painfully traditional, political hack that he appeared to be, despite his "Nader's Raider" credentials.

But the real discussion occurred after the panel was over. Afterwards I was approached by two young white guys (and an older drunk white man who was immensely proud of being married to a Black woman -- the only other Black person in attendance).

The two younger guys thanked me for my comments, and asked what they could do to be down, so to speak. I asked them what they were involved in presently. One guy worked with ACORN and helped shuttle volunteers from New York to Philly during the election to canvas voters in largely low-income Black neighborhoods. My reply to him was that he already seemed to be keeping the right company, and that I had little else to suggest. Admittedly, I'm always a bit leery about being perceived as the-black-guy-who-can-answer-all-white-people's-questions-about-race-in-America. So, on a whim, I decided to ask some questions of them.

I asked if either of them had ever done community service in South Boston. I told them that there were plenty of poor people there who needed help, and the Black community has no shortage of dedicated students, activists, etc. who are doing good work in their own neighborhoods.

I told him that even if I wanted to volunteer in (most of) South Boston, I couldn't (unless I had no strong attachment to my head or limbs). I told him that it'd be much easier for them to go into poor white communities than any Black person. So, why did they feel the need to work in Black communities? I added to this query that I thought that all volunteers should be commended for their service and that anyone should be able to go to whatever neighborhood they wanted.

The quickest retort was that South Boston was not in a swing state like Philly. But I thought he was asking me what he can do to serve under-served communities, not win national elections. When I didn't tell him how he could best help Blackfolk and redirected him to help his fellow white people in South Boston, I could tell the suggestion jarred him. The other guy got it, and seemed fairly blown away by the not-so-subtle point I was making. So, did the young man want to truly serve or did he simply want to do the liberal pigeon thing in the context of a national political campaign? Probably both. But his immediate reaction was very telling.

The other guy expressed legitimate concern about who was looking out for people with even less than him -- a young man who stated that he was barely making it, living month-to-month without health insurance. He told me that he went to Cleveland, Ohio to volunteer in GOTV efforts leading up to the election. He said that he could now go back to those blighted communities without hesitation or fear. Despite his obvious sincerity, I did not know what to make of his comments. But it was apparent to me that these two had so little substantive exposure to Black people that it was all they could do to keep themselves from releasing at once all of these bottled feelings, curiosities and concerns. But to their credit of the 50+ folks who showed up, they were only two of a handful of whitefolk who took it upon themselves to talk to me.

But I suspect though that most white people who attended this event could be characterized similarly: going days, weeks, months, even years without engaging in a meaningful dialogue about the ubiquity and impact of race, racism and white-skin privilege in America.

I believe these two young white guys came to me in good faith. They want to learn. But they also wanted to be knighted "a good white person" by a Black guy who was saying things during the panel discussion that made a lot of folks uncomfortable, awkward, defensive, even upset.

I don't knight whitefolk -- or anyone else for that matter. I just try to be as candid and as consistent as I can. That in itself is hard enough. But one thing I can do, and temporarily satiate my angst in the process, is to respond to not-so-veiled self-serving questions from guilt-ridden white people with genuine questions of my own.

I said to these two young guys: "Here's an experiment. Given that in NYC white people are a minority and that for centuries white men have had exclusive political and economic reign over the city, how about pledging to only support mayoral candidates of color for the next 20 years? I quickly added (to preempt the rote color = incompetence retort) that all such candidates would possess great integrity and talent."

Man, it got real quiet real quick! The progressive Generation Y-folk started to get as nervous as Rush Limbaugh at a pharmacists convention. All of sudden, the pro-affirmative action rhetoric they had high-mindedly used to cut down their red-state counterparts seemed to instantly evaporate in this context.

They weren't ready to walk the talk. And that's okay, as long as they admit it (to themselves) their inconsistencies. The same holds true for the event's organizers, panel and audience. Walk the talk or STFU. Seriously though, in any enlightened group, most folks would have failed the "smell test".

When the older drunk white guy started to heckle the crowd for having only one Black person in the audience (his wife), someone retorted that there was a "Spanish guy back here". Indeed, there was one Latino in attendance. And yet, I still didn't feel all warm and gooey inside by this veritable parade of ethnicity.

If diversity and inclusiveness were truly important to the organizers of this event, the panel and audience would have averred this. Clearly, it did not.

If the whitefolk in the audience who I made uncomfortable truly believed in inclusiveness, they would commit to doing something -- anything -- to address the segregation which they in part help maintain by their complacency. In other words, they would have to take a leap into the unknown -- that is, real diversity, where the majority of people of color in their presence are of the same or higher social status.

And it is indeed a leap. Woody Allen and the cast of 'Friends' aren't the only New Yorkers who can experience a white Manhattan, if they wish to. The fact of the matter is that most white people live in a segregated world of their own making, and the only thing keeping them from jumping into the mix is the will to do so. Maybe before Google, I'd cut my white compatriots with no Black friends or acquaintances some slack. But, damn, just Google "blackfolk" and "Manhattan" and if you don't come up with something germane within 5 minutes, you're either an imbecile or full of shit.

So, my solicited suggestion to these two young white guys was: Leave your comfort zone. I did so by jumping on a freakin' train in arctic conditions to participate in a panel amidst a virtually all white audience to talk about something that assuredly would not have been meaningfully addressed had I not gotten off my ass and participated. In fact, I even joined a group of whitefolk afterward for dinner at a German restaurant. (I didn't even go to a German restaurant when I visited Berlin!) So, no one can say that I didn't practice what I preached.

Do I think that most whitefolk will heed my bitchy intonations? Nope. But if I just reach one privileged white person a year through 2008, I will have exceed my lifetime community service quota. Besides with the advent of the blogosphere, whitefolk who have not yet drummed up the will or courage to interact with their colored counterparts can at least eaves-drop on us by reading our blogs. That way you don't have to pay Amtrak $80 like I did to leave the comfort zone of your web browser's bookmarks.

Posted on Saturday, February 05, 2005 in aN Blog | Permalink


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» Live in a segregated world of their own making. from Negrophile
On Friday, January 28th, I participated in a panel called "The Grassroots, the Netroots and the DNC: A discussion of progressive participation, party politics & the race for DNC Chair" sponsored by Concerts for Change and Cosmopolity.com. I asked if... [Read More]

Tracked on February 5, 2005 11:20 PM



I'm the white guy who "seemed to get it" a little that you were talking to. I've posted a response to your post here: http://jamespoling.blogspot.com/2005/02/leaving-ones-comfort-zone-response-to.html

Feel free to check it out.

Posted by: James | February 9, 2005 01:31 PM


Chris, I am absolutely shocked by this. I am soooo blogging about this. This is what has been absolutely bothering me about these power bloggers. And I am appalled this conference was put up in NYC and neither me, nor Latino Pundit or Prometheus were invited or even asked who to invite so it would not have looked like you were filling up a quota.

Stupid. Absolutely stupid.

Posted by: Liza Sabater | February 9, 2005 02:32 AM


This is one of your best post yet. Your right on point. Keep up the GREAT work.


Posted by: James Harris | February 6, 2005 01:02 AM

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