As I wind through the corridors of Thompson Memorial Library, I wonder if preparing for a workshop that has the goal of undoing racism is possible. It seemed unlikely we could learn to change a concept so deeply rooted into the foundations of America. To be completely honest, I’d be happy if I simply took away a quick-and-easy half-credit for my transcript. However, during my research prior to the workshop of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), I became increasingly fascinated by the idea of bringing together all ages, races and positions in life to discuss such a loaded topic as institutional racism, and where we stand in relation to it.
PISAB, an organization founded in 1980 by Ronald Chisom and Dr. Jim Dunn, has spent the last few decades traveling the United States to educate communities on how to “undo” the causes of racism. On Oct. 24 through Oct. 25, Vassar College, in collaboration with PISAB, hosted a workshop in the library’s Class of 1951 Reading Room. Students, faculty and members of the Dutchess County community were invited to learn about continued colonization and the systems created to maintain white supremacy. As we entered, we congregated into pockets of comfort—choosing to stay close to people we knew, people our age or just sitting as far away as possible from the instructors. The chairs were arranged in a loose circle, the back tables overflowing with breakfast bagels, pastries and coffee. The participants willingly gave up their personal space to ensure everyone had a seat and felt included.
After loading up on coffee and bagels, we established a covenant for participation. To name a few of the agreed upon rules: All in attendance would be respectful, all would participate, and all would listen to understand, not to respond. We all quickly agreed and jumped right into the workshop.
The instructors began by asking us whether or not we perceive Vassar has a problem with racism among students on campus, and if the institution as a whole is neglecting their duty to address it. Hands rose tentatively in the air, eyes glanced sideways, whispers crept their way around the room. In that moment we understood that the workshop would be more personal than detached, and the silence smoldered as we came to terms with this harsh reality.
The three instructors from PISAB worked together at intervals to encourage the telling of stories that urged us to understand others and their battles—to truly understand how racism lingers so inconspicuously today. We focused on whether or not someone is considered Black, even if their closest black relative has multiple “greats” before their familial title. A question that stood out in particular was what we like most about socially-assigned labels, answers to which varied from voluptuous body parts to comfort when interacting with the police. This lead to discussions of police brutality, the inability to feel comfortable when you walk into a store, and whether or not you’ll be asked to leave when you sit down at a restaurant. Another conversation took the shape of labels given to us and how they may not be the ones we would give ourselves. Most in attendance did not seem to question their assigned labels, while those of mixed races took longer responding.
We looked into each other’s souls as we discussed hardships and shared truths. For some spotting racism is easy, while for others it comes to light that racism is not always this blatant use of the n-word or making someone sit in the back of the bus. It’s oppression. It’s a lack of opportunities. Racism is thinking you are being progressive by allowing a Black child into your predominantly white school, but not wanting your white child to attend a predominantly Black school.
Interestingly, the instructors did not focus on the possibility of dismantling race in an attempt to establish equality. PISAB defines racism as “racial prejudice + power.” With this in mind, there were no interjections when the instructors stated, “All white people are racist.”
Sitting in this imperfect circle, each participant motionless in their seats, the words reverberate around the room. Can this controversial statement initiate the beginning of change?
Professor of Hispanic Studies Eva Woods Peiró attended an Undoing Racism workshop last February and then again over fall break. She currently spearheads an independent study program with seven Vassar students, all of whom also attended the workshop and are passionate about the work PISAB is trying to accomplish. “Sometimes us white people become desensitized to terms like ‘structural racism,’ as we use it in academia but it doesn’t seem to resonate with our daily, domestic or even social/professional lives,” Woods explained in an email interview. “By going systematically through the ways in which systems are built upon racist thinking throughout the history of the United States, the workshop allows us to see how complicit our personal notions of home, comfort, safety, well-being and morality are integrally connected to our privileged position vis-a-vis structural racism.” Woods also elaborated on the value of the workshop’s hermeneutical structure: “What is truly remarkable is how the circle of sharing, which in both workshops was composed of quite diverse individuals, does not shame or call out, but calls forth people to heal from racism, which dehumanizes all of us.” Finally, Woods explained the main crux of the workshop, including it’s goals and main takeaways for attendees: “So how can I not be racist?” she asked. “By dismantling racism, and making that a part of my everyday practice. By undoing racism, I can try to regain the humanity that I have lost by allowing a system of dehumanization to exist, and even thrive.”
PISAB travels all over the United States, leaving the participants at each stop with more questions than answers. After all, how does one really go about undoing racism when it has shaped all of America, demographically, economically, ideologically and culturally? Is it even possible? But maybe that’s the point: to start asking questions instead of assuming our lack of compliance somehow abdicates us from working towards a more equitable society. But the answer we come away certain about is that, to be active participants in undoing racism, we must open a dialogue with ourselves, and with each other. Here. Now