MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Led by a racially and professionally diverse set of panelists, the South Orange-Maplewood Community Coalition on Race led a critical community discussion centered around the topic of privilege, and then invited attendees to come up with their own responses and solutions at a May 10 event at The Woodland in Maplewood.
In support of its integration mission, CCR has sponsored Conversations on Race, interracial dialogues, for the past 20 years. Previous discussions have addressed the academic achievement gap, racial self-segregation in the schools, microaggressions and other race-related topics.
The May 10 event, which was themed “Race and Privilege: Raising Consciousness to Address Racial Inequities,” included the panel sharing their knowledge and experiences about how privilege plays out in economics, education, housing, the criminal justice system and other areas of daily life. Afterward, participants separated into small groups to hold candid, facilitated table discussions using suggested starter questions, and then each table formulated strategies and solutions to counter privilege, sharing their solutions with the entire group and with the panel for comment.
Panelists included Khadijah Costley White, assistant professor in the Rutgers department of journalism and media studies, whose research is on race, gender and politics in the media; Demelza Baer, policy counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, where she directs the institute’s Economic Mobility Initiative; Jane Bleasdale, professor at University of San Francisco, whose research is focused on equity and inclusion; and David Troutt, Rutgers Justice John Francis Scholar professor of law and founding director of the Rutgers Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity, who writes about the intersections of race, class and place.
As the event is designed to encourage people to come out of their comfort zones and experience new perspectives, attendees were given a number as they came in that corresponded with a specific table, rather than sitting with people they knew, to facilitate more candid conversations.
“We felt like we were on this trajectory of topics leading up to talking about privilege; it was definitely sparked by some of the comments made by Dr. (Beverly Daniel) Tatum calling attention to the concept of privilege at last year’s event,” CCR Executive Director Nancy Gagnier said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “That may have been surprising for some people, but for many it was a striking comment and we realized that we needed to talk about privilege in broad terms and also white privilege as well.”
In order for the discussion truly to make an impact, Gagnier said that it was necessary that people get to know others in the community, and use the event as an opportunity to sit with people whose viewpoints might be totally opposite from their own.
“In the past, when there are less people in the room, we have asked people to switch tables. We use Conversations on Race as a way to build community so we are hoping whatever the conversation is that there is a new footing for those participating,” she said.
Panelists were asked to consider and respond to three initial questions: How would you define privilege? In what ways do race and privilege intersect, if at all, in your field? And what remedies do you suggest for minimizing the negative effects of privilege?
“I define privilege as not having to know or experience something that’s particularly harmful,” Troutt said. “And if you do have to know or experience it, the impact is diminished greatly.”
“The way I define privilege is when the system or the laws or the policies favor one group over the other,” Baer said. “There are all sorts of privileges out there: race, class, income, education. But race is so intersectional to all of them that it is impossible to disentangle it from the others.”
Just as critical to the conversation as defining what privilege means is creating solutions to address it when it appears.
“Be informed and speak up when there is a conversation about school-district rezoning,” said Bleasdale, who is a Maplewood resident. “Examine your own privilege and what you are saying in public forums and on maplewoodonline.com.”
After the panelists offered their thoughts on the opening questions, audience members held lively round-robin discussions at their tables to come up with viable solutions for South Orange, Maplewood and surrounding communities.
Some of the ideas offered from the groups included making a concerted effort to diversify social circles, as well as early integration of children to make it easier to remove barriers.
On the topic of media, community members expressed a desire to have local print and online media showcase the various people and events in the community so that the communications truly reflect the diversity of the two towns.
Baer encouraged audience members to take the next step after conversations if they find an issue about which they are truly passionate.
“Get involved, take action, mobilize,” she said.
Photos by Shanee Frazier