Last night, HQB hosted the opening session of Eyes Wide Open, a four part dialogue series on “racism, prejudice, discrimination, and meeting the other” organized by St. Paul Interfaith Network. While the session covered far more ground than I could possibly convey here, I would like to share a few highlights from this eye opening and at times provocative dialogue.
Following a welcome by event organizer Joan Haan and HQB’s own Linda White, four panelists representing a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds responded to questions posed by the event moderator. Each of the questions in some way reflected the session’s theme of “Becoming Personal: Sharing Our Pain.”
In response to the first question — “where have you encountered racism?” — Rev. Shawn Moore, Sr. Pastor of St. Paul Mosaic Church in the old Rondo neighborhood, described racism as a pervasive problem in our society, making it hard to pinpoint. Moore was followed by Rev. Bea Vue-Benson, a Lutheran Minister and Marriage and Family Therapist. Vue-Benson discussed ongoing disapproval for interracial marriage (she is a Hmong woman who married a white man) as well a former parking ban at the Hmong festival in St. Paul. Vue-Benson characterized racism as a “lack of curiosity and respect for the other” and acknowledged that she has herself been guilty of this at times. Native issues consultant David Cournoyer described the continuity of racism over time, while Muslim Men’s Circle leader Damon Drake drew our attention to the staggering rates of homelessness, hunger, and unemployment for African Americans. In addition, Drake urged us to listen to those directly impacted by racism, rather than relying solely on credentialed experts for information.
The moderator then asked panelists to comment on the role their faith tradition has played in their thinking on race. Drake discussed the Quran’s emphasis on standing up for justice, while Cournoyer reminded us of the painful legacy of the initial encounter between European religion and American Indians, adding that many in his community are now “finding comfort in traditional spiritual beliefs” about the interrelatedness of all life. Next the panel’s two Christian ministers weighed in, with Vue-Benson citing as inspiration the Christian teaching that “all of us are respected and loved by our creator” and Moore pointing out the limitations of traditional theology. Seconding Cournoyer, Moore insisted that “there has to be something wrong with a religion that subjects and enslaves people,” but nevertheless pointed out the potential of Christianity to foster liberation and reconciliation.
The final question had to do with the role of forgiving and forgetting in dealing with discrimination. Drake said that we must not forget about slavery if we are to rectify its injustices, adding that racism today doesn’t need to be forgiven so much as acknowledged: if most people acknowledge institutionalized racism, few are willing to identify specific individuals as racist or call out specific acts of racism. Cournoyer and Vue-Benson echoed Drake, with Vue-Benson stressing the importance of acknowledging the effects of racism, and Cournoyer pointing out that racism against American Indians is not generally acknowledged. Moore described forgiveness not as a mere “turning the other cheek,” but as an active struggle for social transformation.
One of the main things I learned from the panelists is that racism is a highly complex issue, taking different forms in different contexts, and experienced by different people in different ways. It is also an issue that is often “difficult, painful, and uncomfortable” to talk about, as the moderator pointed out. Yet it is precisely for this reason that dialogue is so important — not just for panelists, but for each one of us. It is for this reason that the small group conversations in the second half of the evening were so valuable. As Drake pointed out, it isn’t enough to sit and listen to a panel of experts; we must listen to each other. And, perhaps most importantly, we must be honest with ourselves about our own shortcomings if we are to help create lasting change.
The next session will meet at HQB on October 10th at 7 pm. Details here.