By Constance Garcia-Barrio
Like acid thrown in our eyes, racism blinds us with hate and fear. We see each other, and ourselves, only through the damage. “But we have a choice,” said Rudy Nickens, 62, of St. Louis, who’s given anti-racism workshops throughout the world for 30 years and will speak on ways to challenge racism Saturday, June 17, 7 p.m., at the Green Street Friends Meeting House, 45 W. School House Lane. “However, not only whites but people of all racial identities have our work cut out for us.”
For people targeted by racism, the work includes the daunting task of releasing internalized racism, which refers to the ways in which people of color have been conditioned to act out the hurts of racism on themselves.
Consider Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), who rose from field hand to millionaire by developing hair care products for African Americans. She built her fortune, in part, by popularizing the hot comb, which straightened kinky hair. Many black women felt that hair texture closer to that of whites made them more acceptable. Today, 100 years later, women of African heritage spend a fortune on straight hair from Brazil or India to have hair more like that of whites. “We build strength from self acceptance,” said Nickens, former chairman of racial equity for the Ferguson Commission, “but internalized racism undercuts it.”
In some African nations, the dregs of racism may have a different look. “Generations of abuse have worn people down,” Nickens said. “Sometimes, there’s a learned self-doubt, a learned subservience.”
Shackled to that outlook, black people find it harder to make progress. The color issue also crops up in many African countries. “Walking through markets in Nigeria, I saw hundreds of skin lightening products,” Nickens said. “It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Systemic and institutional racism means a loss of untold talent of black people who are shunted to poor housing, ill-equipped schools and to prison in disproportionately high numbers. They’re confined to the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder in the U.S. and other nations built on slavery. Germantown’s Colored Girls Museum devotes a room to black washerwomen because that was often the only work available to people of African ancestry. In Peru, the dance company Peru Negro includes a traditional dance called Las Lavanderas (the Washerwomen) in its repertoire because Afro-Peruvian women did that work from the 1500s on, when Spain colonized part of South American and established a racial caste system.
Just as internalized oppression leaves African Americans with plenty of work on their plates, white people also have much work ahead to free themselves of racism, Nickens said. For many whites the word ‘racist’ may be too hard to swallow. It may be easier to break down the issue into bite-sized pieces, he pointed out.
Give honest answers to these questions: What are your first thoughts when you see a black man, woman or child? How many black people does your social circle include? What have you done to address disparities in the educational system or the so-called criminal justice system? Have you contacted your representative or senators about keeping SNAP, the food stamp program, on which many people of color rely?
For whites, racism exacts a high cost in isolation and fear, Nickens noted. “No group escapes the hurts of racism, but that fact doesn’t release us from responsibility, especially now.
“The environmental movement has been largely white in the past, but land and water could be more effectively protected if environmental groups welcomed more people of color. Corporations’ purchase of water rights hammers black AND white communities. We need to follow the lead of native peoples, who’ve stayed in touch with the land.
“The current administration would like to crush the Environmental Protection Agency. We have to take responsibility as individuals and communities and bring pressure to bear so that doesn’t happen. Rappers have an expression, ‘Stay Woke!’ It means stay conscious, pay attention. We can’t afford the luxury of closing our eyes to challenges.”
The June 17 event is a fundraiser for the annual Black Liberation and Community Development Workshop. The suggested donation is $20 to $100. Refreshments will be served. More information: www.facebook.com/events/460223060995810/ Mt. Airy resident Constance Garcia-Barrio is a regular contributor to the Local and author of a novel based on African American history in Philadelphia.