It’s been my experience that good people do insensitive things. I’m guilty and I rely on others to point it out to me. Here is my attempt to be a conversation partner, a voice pointing out insensitivity that borders on racism and certainly the white rescue mentality.
A couple of weeks ago, there was an event co-hosted by an organization for which I give a great deal of time. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any part of the logistics of what I’m about to describe. Other good people did.
As I walked into the event, it was clear people were buzzing. They were excited to hear Bill Cosby speak. Yeah, that Bill Cosby. I’d been told he wanted to talk to ministers while he was in town. He wasn’t wearing an awesome sweater. (Bummer) But, he did wear gray sweatpants and a t-shirt. Seat? Check. Diet Coke? Check. Let’s do this.
Except, it didn’t really start. There was a line of people before him to talk. The majority of them were well-known Tulsa folk on the stage. 6 people on the stage including Bill Cosby, all men and one woman MC/coordinator. We were told Bill Cosby was speaking about fatherhood beforehand. I knew this was going to be interesting. Bill Cosby speaks about fatherhood in general, but over the past decade he has focused on African-American fatherhood and social dynamics. If you’d like a hint at what it was like, watch this video on Meet the Press. Michael Eric Dyson has been highly critical of Bill Cosby’s point of view.
We began with our MC, celebrating the Bill Cosby will speak on Fatherhood. How fatherhood is vital and how important it is have fathers in the home. An African-American single mother, now a grandmother, who persevered raising her children, one of whom is active father with his own children now, came up to speak. She has an inspiring story that was meaningful. Except, she wasn’t on the stage with everyone else. She was brought up from the floor and sent back to the floor. The inferred symbolism was problematic to me.
Then, we had two white men begin talking about a program set up this summer to help kids in “North Tulsa.” You don’t have to be around Tulsa long to know that North Tulsa is never really talked about as if it is fully part of Tulsa. Always, it is referred to with the directional element. North Tulsa is also a historically African-American area of Tulsa. This summer, the city of Tulsa was in the process of closing down neglected city parks in the North part of Tulsa. People were upset. Our mayor responded to the need with a plan to get together churches to build programs for kids out of school for the summer. (I’d like to go into how governments expect churches to solve problems they don’t want to, but this post isn’t about that.) It was mostly a “look what we did” moment. I believe in celebrating accomplishments. It’s important, but in this moment it felt stilted. And then it got worse. A white minister from a wealthy area of town got up to talk about the way his church responded. The program itself and the church’s response are important and they are good work. However, an appropriate speaker about the program would have been a parent from the neighborhood whose child benefited or a pastor from a church in the area the program serves. The whole moment was disconnected from how it appeared… white people to rescue. A white mayor presenting a white minister (both men, by the way) coming to the rescue of a historically African-American community that has been systematically neglected by the city.
When Bill Cosby finally got to speak, even he was surprised! He was friendly, engaging, funny and clearly NOT there to talk to ministers. He was there to talk to African-American ministers and leaders. It felt like I was listening in on a private conversation.
Yes, that happens sometimes, but I felt like a poser, a lurker.
Walking away from that event, my frustration level was high. The organizational structure of the event played into old roles and institutional racism. The fact that Bill Cosby really wanted to speak to a specific group of people seemed lost to the planners. Perhaps they didn’t know.
The event, I am sure, hoped to build bridges and bring people together. Good people working hard, no doubt. Unfortunately, it ended up looking disconnected, insensitive, and racist.