• Gina Baleria

This is Civity Radio: Marty Swaim Challenges Racism Through Conversation

Updated: May 22, 2019

“We don’t basically talk about race,” says Marty Swaim, co-founder of Challenge Racism. “It’s the kind of thing where when the subject of race comes up, people leave the meeting. They leave the room. They shut down.”

Swaim and Civity Research Director Palma Strand discussed the importance of staying in the room on This is Civity Radio Show. Even when doing so is scary, uncomfortable, or frustrating, sharing stories and listening to each other builds understanding and bridges divides so we can solve community problems, such as institutional racism.

“White people in a fundamental way, no matter what their politics, they live in a bubble. That bubble is both privilege and opportunity, but it also means they are cut off from reality,” said Swaim. Through Challenge Racism, she brings together a dozen parents at a time in the Arlington VA School District to break through this bubble and connect Whites and people of color by creating a space where they can share and listen to each others’ stories.

“After about 4-5 sessions, those people do show change. They realize they have privilege. They realize there is such a thing as institutional racism,” she said. “They actually can see how it works in the public school system. Not everybody who comes, but a significant percentage of those people.”

Strand said, “White people are not practiced at this…. These issues come up, and they don’t have any context for talking about it. So of course it’s scary, because it’s like the big elephant in the room that you’ve always known is there, and you know there’s the possibility of getting zapped if you say something stupid, and you don’t want to hurt people.”

Beyond just talking, Challenge Racism provides skills for people to apply to their life. “We start with the stories of all the people in the room. That makes people feel safe because they can talk about themselves. Everybody likes that. And also because the stories in the room are always interesting.”Then they work on skills, first clarifying the difference between individual racism and institutional racism, and then discussing how people of color have been prevented from acquiring assets.

“White people often carry in the back of their heads this idea that people of color are really very nice folks, but the real reason why they aren’t where I am is that they just don’t work hard enough,” said Swaim. “It’s very specific how people of color have been systematically screwed… and it continues to this day, which creates an advantage to White people and disadvantage to people of color. It’s one of the major privileges of White people.”

Then the group discusses how we are socialized to Whiteness, and finally “racial micro-aggressions – sometimes intentional, but mostly unintentional ways that people of color are constantly invalidated in their normal lives and in their professional lives.”

Swaim says attitudes and behaviors really do change over time.

“It really does happen,” she said.“Many of the people in the group who are White will say, ‘Wow. I didn’t know any of this stuff. Why didn’t I know any of this stuff?’ Then they start thinking about what to do next.”

People of color also participate in these meetings, but for many it can be difficult. Some say there is nothing in it for them, because it seems to be a conversation for White people. They want to challenge racism right now.

“I understand why parents of color would be at that point, because most of them have some experiences that are bothering them right now about their kids and the Arlington Public Schools, and they want to talk about those,” Swaim said. “White people aren’t ready to go make that list. They don’t understand the experiences from which you as a parent of color see what happens in the school system. They need a little work before they’re at that point.”

To people of color who do participate, Swaim believes they are giving a gift. “By the time we’ve done these conversations, the people who are White, who are the dominant culture in these conversations recognize what a gift they’ve gotten from those folks in the room who have a different story to tell.”

Swaim and Strand believe that to change the national conversation, you must start intimate. “Every person in that group who becomes more comfortable having these conversations spreads that to all the contexts that they operate in,” said Strand. “Having a national conversation on race is going to take creating a culture where we can talk about race, which is a person-by-person thing.”

Many people who have taken part in Challenge Racism bring their experience to the community, contributing to change on the school board, at PTA meetings, and in day-to-day interactions.

The work of Challenge Racism is very Civity-oriented – building relationships across divides and difference. “Our differences are really valuable. Our different life experiences are really valuable,” said Strand. “If we never go there, then we never explore the potential creativity between our differences, we never explore the potential of what each person has to offer, and we never go to that place where because we have heard each others’ stories, we understand each other better. There’s this weird way in which difference brings you back to this elemental understanding of how we each got there.”

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