By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Sometimes, difficult conversations are necessary to get to a good place. We need to know where each side is coming from before we can advance together. Such was the overarching message of Bridging the Racial Divide: How Communities Can Come Together, an online town hall on July 11, moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, and organized by the Alliance for Persecuted Peoples Worldwide (APPWW).
A nonprofit based in Washington, APPWW “strives to build bridges across communities irrespective of race, caste, skin color, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.” Their aim in hosting this event, to which they invited several active community members, was “to have a forward-looking conversation on how we can listen, learn, and help each other.”
“We all have to understand that we come from our own communities with our own internal biases,” said Center for Latino Leadership Executive Director Maia Espinoza. “I am thankful for these moments to be able to talk about, embrace, and confront what’s going on. Even the discussion about who’s right, who’s wrong…It’s still important to recognize that people from different backgrounds feel a different way about one issue to the next…if a community or individuals are feeling excluded, it is our responsibility to do something to make everyone feel welcome and heard.”
The participants themselves had to learn that sometimes, when having these hard talks, mistakes happenno matter how careful and well-intentioned we are—such as when Eddie Rye Jr., civil rights leader and recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Medal of Distinguished Service, stepped in to remind everyone that all Americans are not immigrants, as is often stated, and as was stated a couple of times at the start of this event.
Rye, who prefers to denote African Americans as African descendants of U.S. slaves, said, “The Native Americans were already here when Christopher Columbus allegedly discovered America, and also, America is [made up of] immigrants and slaves. We did not come here as immigrants. We were brought here as slaves, so we’re getting off on the wrong foot by dismissing, once again, the Black presence…We’ve got to make sure that we have the history correct…We can’t overlook that important fact when starting this kind of conversation.”
Debadutta Dash, ex-commissioner of the Washington State Commission on Asian & Pacific Islander Affairs, agreed that a crucial step of bridging divides was learning each other’s history. He pointed out that the Indian diaspora, one of the newest immigrant groups to the United States, might not be aware of what others here have gone through.
“Most of them may not know how systemic racism started in this country. They need to hear it. They need to learn about it.”
The theme of history and the importance of choosing the right words were highlighted again and again. Espinoza admitted that the use of “broad brushstroke” terms such as “people of color” sometimes rubbed her the wrong way because it “seems like an artificial way of acknowledging an issue that isn’t fully understood…In order to be more inclusive, I think it’s important…to be careful with the type of language that we use, but to be willing to have those conversations to figure out what those dynamics are within each community, celebrating our differences and what brings us together and not just using these broad brushed terms that, for me, give that artificial sense of ‘I care and I understand your suffering’ —but you don’t.”
She was mindful about the way she described Black people, when she acknowledged that “the African American slave surviving community needs to be lifted up,” while also insisting that lifting up of one group should not lead to lowering another. “We need to change our language about ‘us’ and ‘them,’” she said. “It’s all ‘we’ and we are all Americans here.”
“We are all occupying the same country,” concurred Rye, who grew up in a segregated South, and who was adamant about adding context, be it a reminder of significant events in the Civil Rights timeline or the controversy over Confederate monuments.
“After 250 years of free labor, [Black people] died in every war, and then to recognize people who fought to keep us in slavery who were traitors – to give them more respect than you give to Black folks…I think is abominable within itself”
It wasn’t all serious. Rueful laughter was had when everyone agreed that while justice was not equal for all, “equal opportunity discrimination” might be a thing. And actionable suggestions were given to the question: How do we bridge the gap?
Supporting Black businesses was Rye’s suggestion. Invite a person from a different ethnic group into your home, Espinoza said. Be engaged, Dash added, and “walk the talk.” Dash was concerned that there could be too much talk—and not enough walking. “This is absolutely useless if we cannot come up with some kind of action plan. Then things will happen.”
He also emphasized the importance of the youth. “Please, bridge the gap. Bridge the racial divide. Be the ambassador. We need you. We need young folks to come and work together. This is the time.”
Students from around the country were invited to address their questions to the group, who responded enthusiastically. One student moved everyone when she quoted Martin Luther King Jr, “Bridging the racial divide is when we all live up to his ideal, where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. To achieve this, people’s hearts need to change. Without changing people’s hearts, this injustice will not go away; it will just manifest itself in a different way. How do we change people’s hearts?”
APPWW pledged its commitment to continuing to work together with the panelists and with Washington state’s communities at large.
One organizer said, “We’re going to continue that fight. We’ve got to listen to each other, learn from one another, work together, because driving change is hard. And driving change across communities? It’s even harder. Free exchange of ideas and dialogue like we’ve had today? That’s crucial to building bridges.”
This town hall is available for viewing at youtube.com/watch?v=zYsae8Txe9Y.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.