CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION: Thoughts on further discussion of race, class, gender and privilege, by guest blogger Don Stryker.

Don regularly attends Not in Our Town Princeton’s workshops at the Princeton Public Library and presents his suggestions for the “Continuing Conversations on Race” series that will begin at the library on Monday, October 4, at 7:30 a.m. Thanks for this excellent, well-considered contribution, Don!

As summer ends I look forward to resuming the conversation that we began last fall around the idea of “White Privilege,” but which during the course of the year evolved into a broader conversation on race, class, gender and privilege. In talking about this broader range of issues I realized my limited knowledge about the topics and the relative narrowness of my perspective. As I looked for answers I discovered how much material there was available and of course I found that the process of answering one question brought up more questions which led to more reading and reflection.

I focused on written material because that works best with my schedule, although information in other media such as documentaries, lectures and music are readily available. I’ve found this written material in so many forms and genres: biographies, personal narratives, autobiographies; letters, journals and diaries; local, state and national histories; novels, poetry, song lyrics and sermons. There exists
a rich trove of ideas, thoughts and experiences which stand apart from the content of the traditional textbook histories we typically learned from while in school. These standard histories, while offering sweeping views of events, omit the complexities, richness and contradictions of the human experience.

In one of our monthly conversations the discussion touched upon learning about race and class through the reading of history. An observation and a caution were offered about the limitations of relying upon these “standard” histories as a way of understanding any culture or group which has been denied full and equal participation in the social life of a nation. Since standard historical accounts are generally written from the point of view of the dominant culture, such histories can result in a narrow or biased point of view, even if unintended. The historian might ignore material that presents a conflicting perspective, might be unaware of that material, or might consider it unimportant.

These “other” materials include the records people create through their letters, journals, travel accounts and private diaries. When many of these personal narratives are combined they provide a rare window into everyday life while at the same time offer additional and sometimes conflicting viewpoints of events. The documents people produce by their participation in political processes at all levels, and also through their participation in religious, educational and artistic endeavors, provide
additional insights into the understanding of a culture and its history. These varied sources offer a diversity of viewpoints which standard histories, based on a unified theme, are unable to explore.

Because there are so many interesting and thought provoking books available I’d like propose that the discussion group consider a monthly format in which books, documentaries or a combination of them are chosen to serve as focal points for conversations. Last fall, many of us had a chance to read Jennifer Baszile’s book, The Black Girl Next Door, some of us had an opportunity to hear her speak, and then we had a conversation discussing the book. In The Black Girl Next Door I remember
a passage about an old coffee grinder that was treated as a venerable object, passed down through the family from slavery times. I didn’t fully understand the importance of this until I read Remembering Slavery, edited by Ira Berlin, et. al. Although people held in slavery were by law and custom not allowed to own property, they often did acquire small items such as kitchen utensils, furniture, blankets, farm tools or even farm animals. These items were passed from generation to generation to provide a “start “ for surviving what were the most difficult of living situations, and these items retained a deep emotive meaning years after slavery had passed. There is a similar tradition for European Americans whose ancestors brought with them on the immigrant ships a few cherished items which were their last links to the old country or to their ancestors. In those days most people knew that once they had crossed the ocean it was unlikely that they’d ever return to the land of their birth. So likewise the passing down of these items became significant to the succeeding generations. In thinking about the similarities of these two examples I realize the commonalities we all might share.

I’m aware that the issues of race, class and privilege are very complex and that the reading of a few books or the viewing a few documentaries will only provide a brief overview of the subject and offer only limited insight. Perhaps in the course of a year, or for as many years that we might want to continue the conversation, we could read and discuss a book every few months. Or we might view and discuss a documentary one month and discuss a related book the next. The books for discussion might be
contemporary or historical or pertinent to current events. They might be fiction or non-fiction. There might be documentaries based on a book or a documentary and book which together explore the same subject. Or, a book might supplement the conversation about a documentary film when only a few people have time to read the book. Others may enrich the conversation with ideas from personal experience or from additional sources.

Through the process of being together and listening to and learning from each other and bringing new ideas into the discussion, we may be able to better understand this complex and stubborn human problem of race, class, caste and gender prejudice. Out of this discussion we may also better understand how being in a privileged position potentially narrows one’s perspective and limits the understanding of the social realities around one’s self. Likewise, restricted contact with a variety of
people may heighten one’s awareness to the differences between people while at the same time making it difficult to perceive the similarities between people. Both situations severely limit one’s awareness of the richness and complexity of the shared human experience.

Don Stryker, September, 2010