Exploring Cultural and Racial Boundaries
Latoya Peterson, who regularly writes comprehensively about race as the editor and owner of Racialicious.com, was deeply affected by the sessions.
"It was very interesting to have an entire day to reflect on race," says Peterson. "This is more than most people do in a lifetime. You are together with complete strangers, and in the end, everyone's crying and confessing their deepest, darkest secrets because you feel that you bonded in that room. It was a space where you could really talk about this thing that is actually so difficult for most Americans to actually talk about, especially without the fear of being misinterpreted or misunderstood, or having someone fight you or derail you. It was a really refreshing experience to get away from all the pettiness about how race has shaped us."
In the session, Peterson says she was partnered with a Jewish woman, who talked about her racial consciousness being heavily impacted by her parents, the Holocaust and the evilness associated with the idea of racial superiority.
"All of her family who didn't emigrate was killed," Peterson says. "So she grew up in her household thinking that this type of thinking leads to death. This type of thinking kills people. That's rough to think about, but it was not that long ago law in America allowed that discrimination and that people were actually dying. That was the African-American experience and is the Latino experience now. There are these views that people are so different, but that showed our experiences are definitely connected."
How did the conversation impact Peterson?
"It really made me reflect on how fluid this boundary is of whiteness," she explains. "Whiteness we take for granted in society. It's assumed that if you're white, you're privileged and everything is OK, but clearly for Jews and Irish people, whiteness is something different. A guy in there who is Italian spoke about not feeling white enough for some people. There was another guy in there that was a lower-class white, and he said even he was not white enough for most people. So you see how artificial these boundaries are, where you get to the point where no one can be themselves, where everyone is trying to perform up to a standard that they are not because who you are isn't good enough, and you still have to perform."
Peterson says she was "heavily" impacted by the conversation. "I shared about coming to a racial understanding through friends, and not having the language to put things together until I became older," she continues. "So when I was younger I used to babysit for this woman who was a refugee from El Salvador during their civil war. I babysat for her every weekday and some overnights when she called and said she wouldn't be home. She paid me $50. What I didn't realize until much later was that she was being hired by a white couple in a wealthy neighborhood to take care of their child. So on nights when she wouldn't come home it was because they wouldn't let her go; they wanted her to stay late to take care of their child. For me as a kid it was great, extra money. I liked her kids, and they liked me. We had a great time, and I babysat them for 5 years. It wasn't until I got older that I learned about these structures and learned of what she was going through. She was a refugee from a civil war, she had her doctorate diploma degree on her wall, but she was working as a domestic. She was a doctor in El Salvador, but all that went away after the war. She had her lab coat that she kept. She escaped an abusive husband, had to go through the immigration process here that takes years and years. You think how did we get to this point, where you're making these snap judgments about people? But I didn't know that then or understand structure and equality the way I do now."
Peterson says it was "a very valuable" experience for her and the other participants.
"I write about race in my blog every single day, so I don't have a lot of pain or animosity anymore, but I saw in the faces of a lot of people there that they were still grappling with a lot of their pasts. Lots of tears were shed, and people were crying because it was so personal and so deep—being too dark-skinned or moving to America and realizing that the racial structures that they left in their home countries were not applicable here and that they were treated worse. It was interesting to see how much information was shared and how much crying was done because, for most people, they don't have that much space. I'm lucky because I have a whole blog. A lot of people don't get that opportunity to work out their racial issues."