Conversations on Race with Bernestine Singley

In my work at PRA, I am bombarded with literature and emails by rightwing groups embedded with racist and xenophobic messages or subtexts. My goal in working here is to be able to effectively counter these messages as well as the movements that result from them. At the same time, as a White woman involved in anti-war, women's, and LGBT organizations, I try to remain aware of and find and act in ways to counter White supremacy within all of the places I find myself.

Though I always experience White privilege, whether I recognize it or not, I never feel that I am doing enough to challenge White supremacy and racism. Recently, I attended a stimulating and thought-provoking talk featuring Bernestine Singley, author of When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories, which made me realize that I need to be much more aggressive and vigilant in challenging White supremacy and not allowing it to be invisible, ignored, or embraced.

Singley combined wisdom and humor in her talk about her book, recipient of the 2003 Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. A warrior in the fight for social justice, she said she wanted to write a book in which writers wrote honestly about their experiences.

"Race. How did we arrive at the portal to the twenty-first century entrenched in denial about what race means in America and who we are in reference to it? Is there really no cure for what Barbara Diggs-Brown and Leonard Steinhorn have diagnosed as 'the integration illusion'- that affliction they describe in By the Color of Our Skin where our 'public expressions masquerade as integrated when our lives clearly are not'."

To answer this question and promote discussion around race, Singley undertook the challenge of recruiting 30 writers, activists, and columnists known for writing about the issue, asking them to stay focused on themselves, stay honest, and stay clear, to "honestly reveal their personal feelings and experiences around race." The result was 30 painful yet provoking essays about racism and White privilege. Stories of daily discrimination, race fatigue, white privilege often invisible, ignored, and/or embraced by white people make the book a difficult, yet enlightening read.

Following this story, Singley engaged the audience of mostly students to talk about race at their college. "What is your race story?" Singley asked the students, faculty, and staff in her audience just as she had asked writers for her book. People shared stories of conversations they have had, of action of different offices on campus, and reactions to Singley's talk in a thoughtful dialogue.

The challenge posed to the audience is the challenge Singley makes to her readers, "...we offer When Race Becomes Real with this challenge: use these stories not to imagine some mythical colorblind future, but to stay in this moment of our often unyielding racial present and to confront all of what we are and might become, understanding what is required if we wish to live fully human."

The challenge for us in the progressive movement is to continue to or to start to have these conversations in deeper, more meaningful ways in our organizing meetings, in our workplace, in our personal lives. We must be vigilant in looking at our practices and actions, both personally and organizationally, in order to resist and challenge White supremacy and racism everywhere. We must challenge White supremacy in all its myriad forms, in our leadership structures, decision-making processes and daily interactions. We must counter excuses such as not having enough time; not in my job description; or not an issue for me. To begin, just follow Singley's advice and ask yourself, "What is my race story?"

For more information on Bernestine Singley, check out her website at www.bernestinesingley.com

-Shelly Harter, PRA Data Manager
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