Thursday, June 19, 2008

Conversation Recap for June 15, 2008

Today was our First Summer Day Outdoors. Seventeen of us met at Owen Beach, in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, and people brought loads of excellent food.

During check-in, one participant suggested a Conversation emblem we could adopt, a form of body ornamentation. Several participants evinced an interest.

Today we heard Crestina’s story.

In the ensuing discussion, we discussed stereotypes, the encounters with them during childhood, and the ways we make sense of them now. We came back to this several times. This is at the heart of the Conversation. At times one of us may bring up something that cuts at another member. As one participant said to the participant who uttered the phrase, If it were uttered in a context where I didn’t know you, I would have walked out.

But there was no walking out. Instead we talked about it. People said what was on their minds, and we listened to each other. As one participant told us, the Conversation is a place where we can deal with a little tough honesty.

Among the things said: It is very important to look at the history of stereotypes. What is conjured by the images. In the not-too-distant path it was common for products to be marketed with images of African Americans on the label, in advertising, or in the shape of the package. Examples include Aunt Jemimah Syrup, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and Cream of Wheat. These are historically transitory figures, people who are always depicted as servants, people who disappear once the consumer (say, a child) is past that stage of life when they eat a lot of syrup. One participant summarized such images as “one of the chains that hold us back.” Another participant said the stereotypes fix a limit or ceiling on African Americans.

A related topic: Participants reported numerous social situations where whites are not confronted about our relationships to stereotypes. Some reported a common response, when confronted, is to step back from the situation, as if attacked. It is almost as if there were unwritten rules that say whites do not have to examine these ideas, and their participation in their perpetuation.

Also in the ensuing discussion, we discussed constitutional rights, what they have signified, protected, and empowered over time. For example, in the US it is common to define the Bill of Rights as primarily protections for individuals against government power. At other times in our history they were constructed in more economic terms, such as in the many European immigrants who came here voluntarily seeking a better life. When we characterize the United States as a “we” story, the word “we” is problematic. Are we sure others see it the same way, and share in the story the same way?

One participant suggested a book to read at this point: Octavia Butler, Kindred.

We also discussed connections between the Conversation and social justice topics. A commitment to social justices means difficult topics will come up now and then, topics that ask us to engage in conversations about how we live. We considered generally some questions about how we see transformation of the community. One participant noted that in the current presidential contest there is “big time naiveté,” that the campaigns are avoiding the topic, and that the media are not at all interested in such story lines.

We discussed ways at reaching out to a wider community. One was a forum that focuses on mythologies in the USA, perhaps a series. There are myths that are perhaps properly addressed at the 4th of July, or in the lead-up to the presidential election. Other interesting myths deal with race, the founding, economic opportunity.

Many of the participants are, to use the phrase of one first-time participant, old heads. One possibility for linking up with and listening to not-yet-old heads is to have them invite us to show up in their neighborhood. Perhaps we will get invited to Manitou Park, and we could bring food, etc., and have an interesting conversation. Maybe this will happen July 27. More to come on this. Among the topics that might be discussed: drugs, gangs, pregnancy, and maybe racism (although we heard that younger folks don’t talk about it much).

We learned that, despite the wet and cool Spring so far, we are in a drought season.

This discussion, and going to a public park, was in pursuit of a goal of the Conversation. Get people, and mostly white people, to take the risk to get out and listen to, talk with some folks that are usually seen one-dimensionally.