American Pictures

"My thoughts on the racism workshop"

by Nancy Ross

I woke up without hesitation or regret on what was very early for a Saturday morning. I had that warm feeling in front of me, hovering over my body, the one which indicates that you're anticipating something. 

You could wake up happy and refreshed, with nothing in your brain except dreamy memories from sleep, and be bombarded by either the bad things you have to deal with, or the happy anticipation that something good is imminent. Today I knew I would be enlightened. I was about to attend a workshop on racism. 

Luckily, I entered Oakes 105 with no expectations. Some familiar faces I had seen from the night before caught my tired eyes, and I smiled. A connection had already been made with these people from having shared an intense experience with them, American Pictures. This multi-media presentation opened my eyes to the poverty-(situation) which still occupies this country. 

From my closed in upbringing, I had thought that the poorest people I knew were those who rented apartments in what was considered the "slums" of Beverly Hills. This four hour slide show made me aware of the still ever present inequality which keeps whites from accepting people of color as human beings. I couldn't believe that Blacks were still considered property as they were when they arrived from Africa to become slaves for White settlers. 

The mastermind behind this immense experience also attended the workshop. Jacob Holdt looked the same as he had the night before. He wore a white oxford with the sleeves rolled up, and old brown corduroys. He had donned the same basic outfit many times in some of the pictures from his six year hitchhike around America in the 1970'. 

Jacob's long, unruly hair was an unheard of appearance for a renowned guest, and his full beard ended with a bread which fell to his bellybutton. What gave him away as a foreigner from Denmark were his see-through blue eyes and his speech. A "j" would often be pronounced as a y, but his accent sounded fundamentally British. For one whose first language was not English, his mastery of the language was exquisite. I was surprised to see how many big words he knew. 

I sat in my chair in Oakes 105, and it seemed to comfort me, unlike the seat I had weaseled around in last night. American Pictures clouds your mind with reality, with the awareness that people in this country live without electricity and without freedom. We hear so much about people starving in Ethiopia, and about unliberated Blacks in South Africa. Well, only a small distance away, there are people suffering the same hardships. The work situation sometimes mirrors that of the poor population of Central America. It just startled me to see that people work extra long shifts a day, making only enough money to return to company-owned shacks for less than on adequate dinner. 

How much money is compulsively wasted by the rich in this country for purchasing such superfluous objects as an updated car accessory or a Cuisinart? What has happened to the priorities in this country? We're not expected to do for others we do for ourselves, but we are expected to be free. The insight that this presentation offered to me is indescribable. I felt lost within myself and refused to ever allow myself to pity my own situation again. 

So this is how I entered Jacob Holdt's racism workshop; enraged, upset, amazed, confused, and prejudiced. Yes, I will admit that I have all the awful qualities that no one likes to admit. The main problem with racism comes with blaming the victim's for his situation because the oppressor does not know how to deal with his own pain and anger inside. Often those who are the most blatant with their racism close off their feelings, when they should realize that they are hurt themselves. 

The first harsh sentences with which the leader of this workshop began his presentation were, "All Whites are racist, all men are sexist, all gentiles are anti-Semitic, and all heterosexuals are homophonic. That about wraps it up." So with these words, Tony Harris, a lightly colored man of American-Irish descent, openly oppressed everyone in the audience. He railed all racists except three with the first sentence. He then told us to "slow down"; that we would be feeling strong emotions, and that we should feel comfortable enough to cry, laugh, scream, protest his words. 

As he was saying this I saw everyone's protective coverings rise from their bodies. We all became lighter in our seats from relieving the weight of our defenses. For the first time I felt as if I were on the same level with 90 other human beings. 

The first exercise Tony asked us to do was to introduce ourselves to the person next to us and tell them what we wanted to get out of the workshop, and how and when we felt we had conquered racism. I turned to my left and shared myself with my roommate, who was already very affected by the serious, powerful atmosphere of the workshop. 

After privately revealing our thoughts, some of us were asked to share our words with everyone. This was the structure for the next three hours. A person would go up to the front of the room and immediately hold hands with Tony. They would introduce themselves and would recount their personal situations. 

Most of the people cried out of fear, and found it hard to matter-of-factly reiterate such phrases suggested by Tony like "I love white people" or "I am losing my mother to racism." These words were hard to admit to a group of strangers, but were even harder to admit to oneself. 

One narration which affected me most, which made me cry in sympathy and happiness, was the story of a young woman whose mother would not consider her marrying a black man. She felt that her mother was not standing behind what she thought was in her best interest. She was upset that her decisions were not validated by her mother's approval. The sad fact was that this young woman's father was a Chicano, and that her sister was engaged to a Filipino. Why was considering marriage to a Black man so awful, when it had been a pattern in her family to marry a minority. From her appearance and manner I would not think that this pretty, fashionably clad student would have such rooted problems affecting her everyday thoughts. 

Tony first asked her to say "I am a woman." She smiled and laughed for about ten minutes to avoid saying this powerful phrase, until women in the audience began to help her feel proud of being a woman. All of our right arms went up in unison, and a few more liberated women screamed what Tony had suggested; until the oppressed student at the front broke through her own silence, belted out "I am an ANGRY woman" two or three times, hugged Tony and cried, and returned to the audience to become a supporter for the next distressed soul. 

At this point in the workshop, I realized what this was all about. I felt a greet rush of humanness in the room, which was exactly what I had wanted to feel. These people with whom I was sharing this were trying to change the fundamental restrictions which they eternally carry with them. We too often accept and accept and never try to change. Lately my mind had been turning to all the darkness in this world. I was seeing everyone as an enemy, and me as the victim. 

Here in this room I realized that everyone is in the same boat, and that there are some people who care enough to help themselves and others. We can do only as much as we can to better our own situations. That racism is such a deeply rooted problem, we cannot unlearn it. Rather, we can start opening up our hearts and coming to terms with our own feelings. Such a valuable lesson can only be experienced in an unthreatening and comforting environment like the one in which I spent six and a half hours on a Saturday afternoon. 

The next two hour project we accomplished concerned our identifying ourselves with certain oppression groups. We assembled into ten different groups: Blacks, Jews, Activists, Handicapped people, White Men, Women, Christians, Children of Alcoholics, Mixed Heritage, First generation Americans, and Wasps. We were asked to answer questions concerning the likes and dislikes of our group, about what we wanted people to know about us and how they could help us by doing things or not saying certain things. I allied myself with the Jewish group. 

As we sat outside and discussed ourselves, I realized that I did not feel one hundred percent comfortable with admitting my Judaism. The process of discussion was one I had never encountered. Of course, every oppressed person must deal with the idea of being oppressed every day of their lives. I had never really taken the time to congregate with other Jews to talk about our feelings as a group. I came out of our discussion feeling proud enough to stand in fruit of the audience by being labeled as a Jew. As I accepted my own identity, I was equally accepted by others. (Why can't the world be so comforting?) 

After six and a half hours I did not want for this enlightenment to end. The only painful feeling I had was that of hunger. And now I know that hunger far surpasses the deeply rooted feelings of oppression and racism. I learned something more valuable on that day than I could have learned in four years of college courses. I learned how to live. I learned how to change an attitude. I learned that by opening up my heart, people will sense the warmth and will understand that I accept them, no matter what color or religion they may be, or what type of handicap they may have. 

In essence, I learned how to be human. 


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