Editorial: Sunday’s workshop on white privilege, racism does more than provoke — it transforms

In the whitest state in the union, why attend a talk and workshop this coming Sunday on white privilege and how it perpetuates our nation’s cloaked embrace of racism? Just how important is this discussion, and what on Earth does this have to do with you?
More than you know.
Consider this: The popular GI Bill, one of the most successful government programs to help jump-start America’s booming middle class and launch the birth of the Baby Boomer generation, largely kept America’s black GIs from taking advantage of those programs. Only 4 percent of the one million African-American GIs coming out of WWII were able to reap the benefits of one of the greatest monetary handouts lower- and middle-class Americans ever received. Those benefits, which offered GIs free higher education and discounted loans on housing, helped enrich white Americans to great effect, but also helped create a racial divide that resonates today.
Who knew? It’s a bombshell revelation of injustice that rocks any American’s perception of fairness. But this is no secret. It has been open public policy for all these years.
It is but one example of the uneven playing field that defines “white privilege” in this country, a privilege that most white Americans have chosen not to see, but which has recently come to the fore in today’s highly contentious, political environment. It’s an environment in which mainly conservative white Americans are threatened by non-whites; by a minority that will soon be a majority population in this country.
But the talk Sunday is not about politics. It is not Us. vs. Them. Rather it is understanding what our cultures have wrought, who we are as individuals, and what race means to each of us.
Author Debby Irving will peel back those layers of privilege and help area residents understand our cultural embrace of racism, knowingly and unknowingly, in an informal talk/workshop this Sunday, Dec. 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Congregational Church in Middlebury. The talk is titled “I’m a Good Person. Isn’t that enough?”
By the title, you can anticipate the answer: No, it is not.
But why?
Irving hails from well-heeled Yankee roots, born in the upper crust burbs of Boston in 1960 and following the hardworking and optimistic mindset of her Mayflower ancestors. Work hard, study hard, keep your nose clean, be prudent and frugal, don’t complain, be optimistic and good things will follow — a cultural and family formula for success, she had always believed, and a formula by which all Americans would benefit.
Over the generations, that perception has translated to a political bias of well-intentioned white Americans trying to “fix” things — poverty, crime, family strife, drugs, injustice — in their image. Irving was of that mold, believing as a teacher that if only they (the other) would adopt her formula for success, good would come of it.
 But in a personal journey she catalogues in her book, “Waking Up White,” she wonders why her efforts to help don’t gain traction. She starts by first recognizing her position of privilege to eventually understanding her own ethnicity as a white person, how that relates to non-whites, and how that realization frees her to understand not only others better but herself. She writes it as a book of self-discovery, but it serves as self-discovery for a white America — a privileged white America that has for too long ignored the cultural barriers we impose on fellow Americans who are not white-skinned.
The book is not always a comfortable journey. The privilege white Americans have enjoyed is embarrassing. That we have ignored that advantage is shameful. That many rise up to defend its continuance is abhorrent and un-American. But Irving helps us see how history and politics led us to where we are today, and understand from whence racism comes. It’s a cultural journey through the ages, but to find resolution it is a journey of personal, not political, revelation.
Why go to Sunday’s talk?
Think of the racial conflicts of our time: The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray; the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville; the inflammatory rhetoric of our current president and some members of Congress. Think of the appeal of a Mississippi senatorial candidate, recently elected, to a public lynching. Consider the rise of hate speech, hate crimes and nativistic politics. It is an understatement to suggest that we all need to better understand the motivations and causes of racist behavior.
That is why this talk and workshop is important.
What’s uplifting is that the work done is within each of us. No blame is cast. To coin a slogan: Culture is, understanding does.
Everyone is invited. The only admission is the courage to attend.
That’s not all.
A second workshop, “Leveling the Playing Field: Interrupting Patterns of Privilege,” will be held Sunday, Jan. 27 from 3-5 p.m., also at Middlebury’s Congregational Church. If you’re game for that, too, read Irving’s book: “Waking Up White,” available at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.
And here’s the kicker: If you are that person who wants to eliminate, or at least mitigate, racial bias within yourself, attend one of the small-group discussions held between the Dec. 2 and Jan. 27 talks. Those workshops are set as follows: Dec. 3, 10:30 a.m. to noon; Dec. 4, 4-5:30 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m.; and Dec. 5, 1:30-3 p.m. at the Middlebury Congregational Church.
The workshops are part of the continuing series of “Community Conversations,” led by the Rev. Andy Nagy-Benson and Emily Joselson, that have been ongoing for the past few years. The conversations are sponsored by The Congregational Church of Middlebury, SURJ Middlebury (Showing up for Racial Justice), Middlebury College, The Vermont Book Shop and Ilsley Public Library.
Think about this for a moment.
In a very white state, in a very white community which seemingly has few racial problems at its fore, we have a dedicated group of residents devoted and determined to discuss the shortcomings in our culture and help bridge the divides of misunderstanding so that we — in this greater Middlebury/Addison County community — may live together in an honest, forthright and more harmonious manner. If the community could market that, we’d be golden; but if we could just do it, we’ll live better lives.
Show up this Sunday, if you can.

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