Undoing Racism: Special Guest Post from Rishan, LCMC Classroom Program
The following post was written by LCMC’s Intake and Assessment Manager, Rishan Habte, after her experience this past February attending the Meyer Foundation’s workshop, led by The People’s Institute, titled Undoing Racism. LCMC is committed to breaking down systemic barriers to social and economic equity and ensuring that no matter where we’re born or what we look like, here we are all one community and we are better when we lift each other up.
What race do you identify as?
It is a question that we are commonly asked when navigating through life in the United States. From applying to jobs, to opening bank accounts and creating profiles on websites, your race is as much a part of your personal identity as your name. Unlike your name and date of birth, however, which are certain, race is more complicated -- and I was reminded of this in a profound way earlier this year.
In February, our Executive Director Gabe sent out an email to the staff asking if anyone would be interested in attending a workshop being offered by one of our funders, The Meyer Foundation. The workshop was titled Undoing Racism and it was being led by The People’s Institute. Immediately I became a little uncomfortable, but the discomfort led me to realize that this was probably something I should attend.
Like carbon monoxide, racism is a silent killer and it can destroy before its presence is recognized.
As the Intake and Assessment Manager for the ESL classroom program, I am often the first person students come in contact with when wanting to receive services from LCMC, making me the “face of the organization” for those in need of our services. Our classroom program serves over one thousand students from 150 countries every year, and each year, we grow a bit more. Our students have many reasons for being in the country, they have varying levels of education and they all have different reasons for wanting to learn English. My job includes figuring out if the student will be admitted into our program. For some students, it may be the first time they are interacting with someone outside of their community.
According to a recent study by Wallethub, 4 jurisdictions within Montgomery County were listed in the top 10 of the “Most Ethnically Diverse Cities” in the United States, with Gaithersburg being listed at number 2. As a response to the diversification of the county, in 2018, newly elected County Executive, Marc Elrich sought to create a Racial Equity and Social Justice Policy. County Executive Elrich has called on Community Leaders and Organizations to take the necessary steps to ensure racial equity in Montgomery County. LCMC has committed to participating in this conversation.
The ideas surrounding racism are very personal and the conversation is only had at home with people who are trusted and usually have similar views. Because racism is deemed a taboo to discuss in public, racial inequality has prevailed and we are watching its manifestation within the current political climate and the rash of racially motivated violence that has plagued our country over the past several years. It is our continued silence that has been the propellant for the inferno of hatred that seeks to ravish our country.
In many countries around the world with homogenous populations, people are categorized by factors such as language, religion, and ethnic groups. On the surface, it may seem like we are being categorized by the color of our skin in the United States, but upon further investigation, it becomes evident that the notion of race is a social and political construct that has been used to enhance or hinder your access to opportunity.
Once you realize this, you are forced to confront your own prejudices. It is only then that you begin to understand that racism is all around you and the prejudice that you hold in your heart is the fuel that has allowed it to exist.
Thinking about all of this, I decided. Along with Ahu Moser, our Program Administrator for the classroom program, I signed up for the training.
As one of the staff members who often attends conferences and workshops on behalf of LCMC, I’m used to the process of going to these types of events. You sign up, you list your dietary restrictions, you are given an agenda and perhaps a bio of the presenters, maybe you are asked to think of anything you would like to discuss and to have your questions ready. The day before or maybe on your way to the event, you read over the materials to prepare you for what you are going to be discussing and you come up with one or two questions about something you would like to know.
By the day before the workshop, I had been asked about dietary restrictions, but I hadn’t received an agenda or a bio of the presenters. I had not been asked about things I wanted to discuss and I did not know who else would be attending the conference.
The feeling of discomfort returned and this time it was accompanied by fear. I became nearly paralyzed by the thought of sitting in a room for two days with complete strangers talking about racism. Even Ahu and I, who share a close working relationship, had never discussed how our race, family, and culture have shaped our world views, and now we were going to have to put it on display to each other and a room full of strangers.
On the morning of February 26th, I walked down Connecticut Ave looking for the Meyer Foundation building, and my discomfort and fear were joined by anxiety. I could turn around and jump on the metro and go home, I thought. Just as I began formulating a story about why I didn’t attend the workshop, I got a text from Ahu telling me she was at the office and she was awaiting my arrival.
I gave her a call and I asked it her how it was going and how many people were there. I could hear the discomfort, fear, and anxiety in her voice. She ended with, “Hurry up, I don’t know what we are going to discuss today and I don’t want to discuss those things alone.” Instantly, I felt a little reassured as I came to realize that Ahu and I shared the same sentiments and we would be able to protect and support each other.
Upon arriving, I went through the motions. I signed in, made a nametag and I had a cup of coffee and a pastry, but I still hadn’t received my event folder with the agenda and a bio of the presenter. Maybe we’ll receive them in the conference room, I thought. We were led to a room with chairs along the wall. There weren’t any tables and I didn’t see any technology, no laptops, no projectors, nothing. Only chairs and an easel with writing pad and markers. As the fellow attendees took their chairs, I scanned the room to get an idea of who the people were that I was going to share some of my most intimate thoughts with.
We had all come to the workshop with the notion that we were some sort of hero or savior that had chosen a career path to help the downtrodden and forlorn realize the American dream.
The presenters opened the workshop up by introducing themselves. Led by Dr. Kim, all of the presenters were women that held multiple degrees and worked as activists, organizers, and teachers for various social movements. They do this professionally, I thought and it eased my anxiety. Next we came up with a set of rules for how the discussion would take place. The “covenant,” as it was called, said things like: everyone must participate, no person should try to dominate the discord, you had to stay in the room physically and mentally, and there would be a ban on all mobile devices. Once we all agreed to the rules, we went around the room and introduced ourselves.
The participants represented various human services and think tank organizations throughout the greater metropolitan area. There were lawyers, policy makers, grant funders, executive directors and board members of nonprofits. Along with stating our name and organization, we had to tell why we were attending the workshop. As I listened to the others answer these questions, I realized that every single participant harbored the same discomfort, fear and anxiety. Almost everyone stumbled over the last questions but the response was always something about wanting to know how racism works.
After the introductions, one of the presenters wrote the “racism” on the board and we were asked to think about the word for a moment and what it meant to us. Next, the word was dissected and we were told that we would be focusing “race” and not the “-ism” part. For the next several hours, we talked about race and its origins as it pertained to the history of the United States. We discussed the various categorizations and which ethnic groups fell in each of these categories. We discussed its implications and why one may choose to identify with one race over another.
After lunch, the conversation switched to discussing power. Perhaps the lunch had made everyone more relaxed as the conversation became more authentic. It was as if the cloak of political correctness had been removed and the participants began talking about race and how it applied to power. As a group we came up with a working definition of what power means. Next we did a “power analysis” in which we examined how power is distributed both historically and in the present.
Finally, the presenters gave us a definition of racism. They defined racism using a mathematical equation: race prejudice + power = racism. Simplified, this means one’s race prejudice plus their access to power causes racism.
Everyone in the room, myself included, represented a human services organization. During introductions, we had used words like “under-served,” “low literacy,” “poverty”, and “immigrant,” to characterize the populations that we serve. We had beamed with pride, discussed our respective organizations’ mission to help the aforementioned populations access opportunity and how we were empowering them. We had all come to the workshop with the notion that we were some sort of hero or savior that had chosen a career path to help the downtrodden and forlorn realize the American dream.
Whether we want to admit it or not, however, we all hold prejudice in our hearts. These prejudices aren’t inherent, they are learned. They are developed by personal experiences, viewpoints from family and friends and exposure to misinformation. We allow isolated incidents to become the dogma in which we judge an entire race of people. If we’re not careful, if we’re not intentional, we arm ourselves with these prejudices and allow them to affect our interactions with people, in case our past experiences should prove to repeat themselves.
It is then that we have begun to sow the seeds of racism.
In today’s society, we show our solidarity with people that have been marginalized by going to marches, using hashtags on our social media feeds, publicly proclaiming that we condemn acts of hate, offering our condolences to groups being attacked. We may even volunteer our time and donate money in hopes that inequality will cease to exist.
But soon after, the headlines disappear. A new hashtag trends. We’ve moved on to the next cause. Rarely have we considered our own power, what we may have done to fuel racial inequality and what can be done to eradicate it.
Because racism is deemed a taboo to discuss in public, racial inequality has prevailed and we are watching its manifestation within the current political climate and the rash of racially motivated violence that has plagued our country over the past several years. It is our continued silence that has been the propellant for the inferno of hatred that seeks to ravish our country.
When given access to power, there will be a discrepancy in judgement. Inadvertently, one person may be given access to opportunity while another is denied simply because the prejudice in one’s heart has been fossilized.
That day, everyone in the room served as some sort of “gatekeeper” for their organization. We were forced to reckon with the notion that perhaps we may have contributed to systematic racism in some capacity at one point or another.
Racism is a difficult topic to talk about. Like carbon monoxide, racism is a silent killer and it can destroy before its presence is recognized.
Simply by talking about it, we began to chip away at racism’s silent power.
—Rishan Habte, Intake and Assessment Manager