Business Not As Usual: Creating A Safe Space To Talk About Race

Fiona Waters

July 19, 2020

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California, Illinois, Alabama, and New York in the US; Canada; and even a country on the other side of the world - these are just a few of the places participants are calling in from to be a part of Denise Hamilton's discussion Business Not as Usual: Creating a Safe Space to Talk About Race. It begins on a light note: As listeners flood into the video call, Hamilton mentions her dog, Prince, who acts more like a cat. Fred Sugerman, co-host of the event, leads participants in a movement meditation. With everyone's mind calm and receptive, Hamilton can introduce heavier concepts.

A Safe Space

Those scared to engage in discussions about racism often feel that they are being blamed. Hamilton emphasizes that no one joining the video chat is personally responsible for racism. "Racism is a system," explains Dr. Robin DiAngelo. "Every institution reinforces this system." Everything from schools, financial institutions, and even the government itself presents racism as "the status quo," Hamilton adds. The lack of recognition for authors who are women and non-white people is just one small example she offers. Someone who has grown up influenced by these institutions may not even be aware that their actions are racist.

Business Not As Usual depends on discussion of the stories individuals' share, not belief or overarching opinion. Hamilton reminds attendees that shared content should be personal stories "from the heart, not the head," using phrases like "I believe" and "I think." Being initially defensive of one's actions, or even one's country, is normal; however, being defensive to the point that it quashes discussion, education, and new perspectives is an issue.

Regardless of how aware someone is about race relations in the U.S., joining the video chat with an open mind is paramount. Doing so allows them to truly hear and connect to the stories being shared. "Stories are medicine," Hamilton writes about the talk. Only by sharing and listening to others' stories can we "go beyond tolerance" to fully understand one another.

"We're All in This Together"

Racial justice issues have never had so much support from both non-white and white people. The recent Black Lives Matter protests in response to George Floyd's murder by a police officer were some of the most racially diverse in history. "We need everyone," Hamilton reminds listeners. "People are dying."

Symbolic change is another issue that impedes racial justice. Social media trends and public art must also be backed with action, such as promoting non-white artists and authors or donating to an organization. Changing simple things, such as where and what brands of groceries you buy, can also have an impact.

"Don't Think of a Pink Elephant"

Getting to the point where you ask yourself "What do we do about racism?" is the first step towards fighting it, says Hamilton. Doing so gives you a "roadmap" that you can use to speed up the time it takes others to ask themselves the same question. Most people who behave in racist ways simply aren't aware of it, as it is behavior that is sanctioned by the political, social, and educational institutions that helped raise them. Many participants in Business Not As Usual echo the sentiment that "ignorance is the enemy."

Once someone recognizes institutional racism, Hamilton compares the experience to being told not to picture something. It ends up being all they can see. This is another crucial step in fighting racism. Recognizing racism and racist behavior allows institutions and individuals to make positive changes against them.

Take the Initiative

Breaking the "white bubble," as it was called in the discussion, is the objective of Business Not As Usual. A white person, "can live [their] whole life coming up in a good neighborhood, have a good education, and have a good job without ever encountering a person of color," says Hamilton. It's true. White people are not forced to address race the way non-white people are, which is why it is important for allies to listen to non-white stories.

A common theme in the stories shared by non-white attendees was pure disappointment with the ignorance enabled by American institutions. Again, "ignorance is the enemy." Anti-racism begins with inclusivity being presented not as something "extra" but as something fully ingrained into American institutions and education. The more people that see the pink elephant and the more people that concretely fight for change, the more powerful the movement battling systemic racism becomes.

Resonating, Not Ending

Hamilton leaves participants on a profound note. She reminds everyone racial justice is not just the topic of her discussion, but it is also an issue that needs to be addressed in daily life. The stories individuals share in Business Not As Usual also make this clear. Even using different language to talk about black lives can entirely change how we perceive an event. "George Floyd was killed because he was black" should really be "George Floyd was murdered because those men were racist."

If the "Pink Elephant Effect" is true, chances are you'll start to notice this deflection of accountability in other areas as well. Don't ignore it. Start to ask questions, do your research, participate in discussions, and learn what actions you can take to support racial justice outside of spaces like Business Not As Usual.

Race Relay™

Business Not As Usual is hosted by Denise Hamilton, who is the writer-director of Race Relay™, and Fred Sugerman, a movement artist for Race Relay™. Race Relay™ is a theatrical production that invites the audience to participate in an examination of current race relations in the United States. It is described as integrating "entertainment, reality, humor, and frankness to involve the audience in a candid, interactive forum." Follow this link to read more about Race Relay™ and for a list of resources provided by Hamilton. The next session of Business Not as Usual: Creating Safe Space to Talk About Race is Friday, July 24th. Make sure to register!

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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