Shortly after beginning her presentation on "Power, Privilege and Racial Diversity in Oregon" at the West Linn Public Library Feb. 17, Willamette University Professor Emily Drew made clear to the 70-plus attendees that this would not be a cathartic finger-pointing exercise.
"I think there is a tendency, especially in the last year, for those of us who care about racism to talk about 'them' (as) the problem — the racists, the tiki torchers in Charlottesville," Drew said. "I actually would like us to do the even harder work of thinking about us — how are we implicated in this arrangement?"
What followed over the course of almost two hours on an overcast Saturday afternoon was a healthy blend of lecture and workshop — or, as it was dubbed by the hosting groups West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Community and Oregon Humanities, a "Conversation Project." This was the second Conversation Project hosted by the Alliance, with another free event scheduled for later this spring.
At the Feb. 17 presentation, Drew offered her expertise as an associate professor of sociology who has taught courses on everything from racism to mass media, social change and urban sociology. Though Drew used a short slideshow as a guide for the afternoon, she also left ample opportunity for attendees to break into groups and talk among themselves about the problems facing the West Linn community — and what might be done to alleviate them.
"The Alliance that brought you here today is really serious about this word 'community,'" Drew said. "And this word, and this idea of community, really takes a lot of work. It does not just happen. So part of what I want us to do today is be part of a community-building exercise to raise our own and each other's consciousness about these issues of power, privilege and racism."
The attendees — who were mostly white, ranged from teenaged to retirement age and included West Linn City Manager Eileen Stein, Mayor Russ Axelrod and acting Police Chief Neil Hennelly — expressed a wide array of thoughts about the current climate both locally and at a national level. There was a common concern about West Linn's homogenous racial makeup and festering intolerance even among the city's younger residents.
"We're going to do some looking at what young people's racism is like, and this sort of mythological notion of progress — that every generation gets better on these issues and thus if we have all the old people die, racism will go away," Drew said. "It doesn't work like that."
This is in part due to the institutional nature of racism, according to Drew. While some of the nation's more explicit racist laws have been abolished, and Oregon is of course no longer the "whites only" state it was founded as, Drew said racism and intolerance are still "baked into" society.
"Today's racism ends up functioning not by us doing the egregious, overt, horrifying acts, but actually by us doing nothing," Drew said.
She cited another professor's metaphor of modern racism resembling a moving walkway.
"All you have to do is stand and do nothing, and racism keeps operating," Drew said. "This is actually about good people doing nothing."
Of course, the event was not intended to ring a bell of utter hopelessness. When Drew asked the audience about "unqualified" progress they've seen in recent years — something that can't be followed with "Yes, but…" — Axelrod spoke up.
"I think as a society we have a much greater capacity now for compassion," Axelrod said. "In my mind that's a hopeful thing, that we are becoming more compassionate and sensitive as a society. Even though there's always that edge and friction, I feel like that capacity is growing."
Alliance member Lonnie Shumaker, for her part, was thrilled to see so many people willing to have difficult conversations.
"I have to admit I was over the top with the turnout," Shumaker said. "It was much larger than last time, and it seemed that people came ready to talk and share. It made me feel good about our community and what we could do if we work together and talk to each other."
West Linn resident Ike Wilkenfeld was also happy to see so many of his fellow residents come together. Though at times he felt a sense of hopelessness during the discussions, Wilkenfeld said he was heartened to see younger residents speak up.
"The young kids are finally beginning to turn the corner in this country," he said. "I'm hoping, just let us old people just die and blow away, and maybe the young people will take over and change it.
"It's just great to see people are coming together … I said, 'Maybe there's a chance. Maybe there's a possibility things will change.'"
The next Conversations Project event hosted by the Alliance is scheduled for April 10 at 4 p.m. at the West Linn Public Library. Aaron Knott, the legislative director for the Oregon Office of Attorney General, will speak on "Hate Under Law: Free Speech, Bigotry and Oregon."
Learn more about the Alliance for Inclusive Community at westlinnalliance.org.
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