All The Places We Are Not: The Racialicious Roundtable For Facing Race 2012

Hosted by Arturo R. García

Rinku Sen, the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of Colorlines.com, at Facing Race 2012. Via Colorlines.

We’ll finish posting the plenaries from Facing Race 2012 Friday, but collected below are some impressions of the conference from members of the Racialicious team, including:

–Racialicious Owner and Editor Latoya Peterson
–Associate Editor Andrea Plaid
–Arts & Entertainment Editor Joseph Lamour
–Guest Contributors Kendra James and Tressie McMillan Cottom

What were the highlights of the conference for you?

Andrea: “No Justice, No Peas,” “What’s Faith Got To Do With It,” and “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” were the stand-out panels for me.

I loved the first one because, unlike the other “green” panel I attended, “Energy Democracy For All,” I never had to ask “but what about the basic disconnect between this idea/policy and people/communities of color, namely that quite a few people of color still think ‘green’ as a whites-only thing.” The presenters made plain the idea that food justice goes far beyond just eating organic foods at vegan restaurants but the racial injustice undergirding the current human ecology of food work, namely who performs which functions in producing, transporting, and serving food–not just to and in vegan restaurants but also, as an example, to and in supermarkets.

“What’s Faith Got to Do With It” was more of a supportive space than a presentation, which is good as far as people connecting with each other but a bit messy when it came to facilitating it–we ran out of time, and our facilitator, an ARC staffer, had to scoot off to do another presentation! I got the feeling that the people needed to have a place where they could talk about how their faiths inform their social justice when larger progressive movements tend to aggressively degrade religion/spirituality as a framework for doing anti-racism work.

“Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing”–which was about how the Right successfully and unsuccessfully uses sexual health issues to drive wedges within communities of color–was so righteous because the panelists brought it so fiercely about not only the racist misogyny that, dare I say, is the Right’s playbook, but also how the Left and the communities themselves are complicit with it when, say, the Left makes it a political strategy to ignore the “flyover states” where the Right is steadily implementing their anti-choice beliefs as laws and others tactics or, say, some Black communities (for example) are silent about abortion rates.

Oh yeah…and I got to ask the first question at the Junot Diaz press conference. (For those who didn’t see the Storified version, I asked him to address several Racialicious readers concern about his “irresponsible” use of the n-word. The Storify is his response.) For all who think breathing the same air as a MacArthur Genius Grant winner would be like inhaling sparkly bits of brilliance–the air’s pretty regular, y’all. He’s a very down-to-earth man, which only adds to his Racialicious sapiosexuality.

Kendra: Given my day job background in secondary education and my recent college graduate status, “What is the Future of College for Students of Color” presented by Tressie McMillian Cottom and Tiffany Loftin hit home for me. Coming from a generation constantly told that a college degree is necessary to justify your existence and that if you work really, really hard those student loans will go away, it was refreshing to hear someone go in a completely different direction.

Much of the panel centered around the growing rate of for-profit colleges in the US and how places like The University of Phoenix (the largest provider of higher education in the country–think on that) have the business model of putting their students up to over 100k in debt. Worse, the debt accrues from degrees in professions where they won’t come anywhere near close to making that in a single year. As Tressie pointed out [sic], “Why should a degree in building security cost $175,000?”

There were several lines like that throughout the panel: short, but to the point. The presentations were excellently communicated and led to a constructive Q&A at the end, revealing several fellow educators in the audience. I think that some people, including myself, were also visibly horrified to have a broken system laid out so frankly in front of us. While some were obviously discouraged by this, I left glad to be more educated about the problem. When one man asked if we’d reached a point where we just needed to tell kids to stop going to college I felt almost as if he’d missed the point.

The level of pressure shouldn’t be what it is, but every American should have the right to an education should they want it. Simply discouraging students from higher ed–while failing to fix the problems pointed out–would do nothing aside from widen the gap between those who have the opportunity to become upwardly mobile because of education and everyone else.

As someone who’s had the higher-ed system generally work well in their favor, this panel was a great alternate narrative of education in the US that I can actually take and use in my day-to-day life. The dialogue prompted by the panel overall was also fantastic and led to the start of some friendships I’m really looking forward to growing in the future.

You can see a full Storify of the panel here.

Joe: I was at part (admittedly) of that session as well, Kendra, and it really made me feel like the whole college education system had treated me the same way a car salesman had. Which might sound harsh, but if I had bought a car instead, I would have an Aston Martin.

Tressie: First, thanks for including me Arturo. I feel like I should also apologize for being such a bummer in my own panel.

I also enjoyed “No Justice, No Peas.” I’ve been a laymen in the urban green movement in Atlanta, and it continues to concern me how structural barriers to autonomy over one’s health are erected and policed.

Let’s talk about Junot Diaz’s keynote speech.

Arturo: I found the energy was weird–muted, at times–after his initial reluctance to read his speech and the Q&A interlude that began his presentation. The content of the speech, once he got rolling in the first non-”freestyle” portion, was there for me. But it was less…rousing, I guess, than you would have imagined, given his position.

I also want to forward this thought a friend threw at me: For Diaz to engage in that behavior at the beginning of his speech was an expression of male privilege on his part.

“If a woman speaker had hemmed and hawed and said she didn’t want to give her remarks, then taken Q&A before saying anything, then her career would be over,” said my friend.

Thoughts?

Joe: Like I was telling you before, Arturo, I actually enjoyed his speech, although I do agree with some of the points you made about the sheer awkwardness of it.

There were a couple of things that stuck out to me: how awkward his introduction was- he was late, which wasn’t his fault, I don’t think- and when Rinku Sen introduced him, she had to fill the time with anecdotes. Her story about her nieces were actually entertaining enough, but it just served as the first delay, because when he got there, he still didn’t want to say his speech. At one point he said some form of “I really don’t like reading pre-written speeches.” so many times that I wanted to shout “Then…don’t!”

The question and answer thing could have gone on for the whole time and would have been inspiring enough for me, frankly. It was his open distaste for what a lot of people were looking forward to that was so off-putting.

Andrea: Frankly, I wasn’t put off by his reluctance to not wanting to read his prepared comments. To me, his comments were a reiteration and an affirmation of what we’ve been talking about at Racialicious for years, so I didn’t feel the need to hang on his every word like a thirsty person in the desert. And, considering that he’s probably been giving prepped speeches and reading excerpts for a while, he probably was simply tired of doing it. So, I do think a 45-minute Q&A would have been a great way to have a more interesting conversation. But I got the distinct impression that he may have been told by the organizers that that part of the program needed to go a certain way and not to veer from that.

I think that–considering that the man just jumped off the train a few hours beforehand to hustle it to a press conference then to do a  keynote address and then hustle back on a train to head home–he probably wanted to just connect with the audience, which is why he wanted to do the Q&A first. That’s real, though, as we could see by the problems with the mics, seemed like a logistical nightmare for the organizers to deal with.

Junot Diaz at Facing Race’s pre-keynote press conference. Photo credit: Andrea Plaid.

As for your friend’s comment, Arturo: I don’t think Junot Diaz doing what he did stemmed from his exercising male privilege. A woman of similar stature–say, bell hooks or Sandra Cisneros or Zadie Smith–probably could have gotten away with what he did and not suffer from a backlash. Futhermore, a woman like Toni Morrison could practically rearrange that whole section of the evening and no one would have breathed a contrary word. But I do think the women I mentioned may have handled their reluctance to read their speech differently, like being adamant with the ARC team before getting to the hall or the stage that they wouldn’t read their speech and wanted the time to be used as a Q&A session instead. They then would have gotten on the stage and said something like, “I know you all are expecting a rousing speech from me. But I’m tired of reading, and I really want to use this time to just talk with you–as much as I can–partly because I haven’t had a good old-fashioned conversation in a while. Who has the first question?”

The moments that got side-eye from me were his implying that “decolonial love” couldn’t be found in interracial love. If, by his own statements that we’ve made racial identities so “miserly” that we can’t see others quite as human as we are, then, to me, saying that decolonial love can’t be found in the companionship of someone outside of one’s racial/ethnic group is be miserly about the workings of love because that partner isn’t quite as human–in the sense of having an anti-racist empathy and commitment to work toward racial justice–as those in one’s group to work through and against white supremacy and toward racial justice. Again, haven’t we said on the R that monoracial relationships are not guarantees or ideals any more than interracial relationships? Also, I didn’t dig keynote emcee Rinku Sen asking Diaz for relationship advice. I get that she was trying to end on a light note, but I was rather annoyed by that Steve Harvey Moment. I think I even said out loud, “What the hell is that?!?” to the giggles to the people in my row and the row ahead of me.

Tressie: OK, I missed all but the very last of this talk. However, it was all the rage on social media. I noted, with interest, a statement on Diaz’s Facebook: he was clear that Facing Race was the last of a two-month book tour. I really do just think he was exhausted. However, that’s not the audience’s fault. He wasn’t as sophisticated in his handling of that as, I suspect, many would think he would be.

Latoya: What disturbed me most about the talk wasn’t anything with Junot. It was the reaction of the audience to a few different things.  There are screams of joy and elation when Junot talked about his dating life, but we can’t even get a clap or a finger snap when he stressed the need to care about the issues of other communities like we care about our own?  I’m not going to lie, y’all–that hurt.  Junot said it twice, and it still was met with silence.

If other advocates for racial justice won’t clap for inter-group/inter-ethnic/interracial solidarity, what kind of hope do we have for true, lasting change?  I know that’s not as sexy as finding out if Junot was, in his words, “a cheating motherfucker” like Yunior, or even as scintillating as discussing decolonial love, but damn.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here.  But my year away has really kind of opened my eyes to all the places where we as activists are not. There is so much work to be done.  So many pathways to blaze.  But how do we do that if we are content with sitting in our own silos and not working across boundaries?

Your take on Twitter’s impact on the weekend…

Andrea: I think that Twitter has an incredible impact on connecting people, especially those who live and work outside of the bubbles of social activism and online writing on the East Coast, specifically in New York City, and vice versa. Twitter is, for many of us, our nervous system, and the Facing Race conference gave quite a few of us a chance to add flesh to those relationships we’ve been forming in 140 characters or less. The levels of hugs I got from people I’ve been Twitter pals with, some of them for years (looking at you, Chris Macdonald-Dennis)!

But, I think we need to look at the entirety of social media–not just Twitter–in connecting so many people at Facing Race. While Twitter gives people a hell of a chance who may not otherwise interact with other anti-racism folks online, blogs like Racialicious and vlogs like Jay Smooth’s Ill Doctrine, and videos done by Janet Mock and Franchesa Ramsey also introduced people to to them and each other, albeit in a slower, less interactive way than Twitter. How many times did I hear from people that they loved our work at Racialicious, though we’re not the Twitteriest of online entities–hell, Junot Diaz told me that he loved our work twice! But quite a few of us are also connected on Facebook and Tumblr, too. So, Twitter became, for a few of us, another way to connect to each other, not just the way.

Joe: I thought Twitter was a great vehicle for quick interactions. It’s becoming a lot easier to connect with potential allies– for instance, I spoke to Avory Faucette (@queeractivist) for only a few moments, but we really connected on our interest in queer issues. We both followed each other on Monday, and I look forward to having a more in depth discussion with Avory on those matters. In the past, I would meet someone at a conference, trade business cards, and hope they would email me back. These days, its so much easier to keep those conversations going, and I love that.

I agree with you, Andrea, that Twitter isn’t the only place for connections to be made. After talking to Francesca Ramsey at the conference, I had a hankering to watch her famous video again, but afterwards I noticed that she uploads constantly to her YouTube page. The first one I watched was a parody of Beyonce’s “Countdown” called “Student Loan Countdown.” Sure, it’s funny, first and foremost, but it really is a good way to start the conversation about the student-loan crisis, a subject covered in the “What is the Future of College for Students of Color” session Kendra and I attended.

Tressie: Twitter ended up being ideal for connecting participants with each other. It’s hard for me to say how well I think it engaged the audience that was not physically present. I thought we ended up using it as much for planning spontaneous conference events as anything else. I did notice that ARC was heavily involved in the stream. At one point there was even some light admonishment to tweeters to focus on the positive. That’s something to be dissected in the future: the extent to which the organizers shape/control the twitter dialogue at a conference.

Andrea: And, more importantly, why. I saw some of those “negative” tweets and thought the tweeters made valid points.

Kendra: First, my Twitter feed has become so much more well-rounded since Facing Race. Not that I didn’t love the people I was following before, but the breadth of knowledge and topic discussion has notably widened over the past week and I’m enjoying it.

Obviously Twitter also gave people who weren’t at the conference a peek into what was being discussed. For some, like my friends and coworkers in education, this was an appreciated chance to gain some insight. For others, it was an opportunity to troll the #FacingRace hashtag while gaining nothing. After tweeting a joke from W. Kamau Bell’s show during the “Like Racism, but Funnier” panel, I found myself [trolled].

Latoya: I learned that I should not tweet after drinking.  Especially not while racists are bombing the feed.  Though, that was my favorite moment of the whole weekend.  We are, apparently, the most self-hating white liberals ever. I personally acknowledge my failure as a white liberal, does anyone else want to join me?