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How to talk about race panel

Panelists at the Cap Times Idea Fest took part in a discussion entitled "Moving past the fear: How to talk about race in all of your spaces."

Rev. Alex Gee is weary of being asked by well-meaning white people “what we can do better about diversity.”

“I hate that question because it prompts an honest response,” Gee said. “There’s a real need for a black rubber stamp on white efforts in this community. When we don’t all hell breaks loose.

“You can’t just fix things for the community.”

Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and an outspoken advocate for racial justice and equity, was one of five panelists who engaged in a free-wheeling conversation about “How to talk about race in all of your spaces,” including the message that getting and staying uncomfortable may be the best way for white people to connect with people of color when it comes to systemic racism.

“Being uncomfortable is important,” said Annette Miller, founder of EQT by Design. “You’ve got to be uncomfortable.

“You realize what you thought you knew isn’t what you know. Figure out where you go from here. Start where you’re at.”

University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson led the panel in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, one of many spanning a variety of subjects at the first Cap Times Idea Fest.

Robinson is the author of the forthcoming book “Networked News, Racial Rifts: How Power and Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Cities,” due out in 2018 by Cambridge University Press.

Her research for the book forced her to “interrogate my own assumptions and biases, even as I was trying to make things better.”

“I watched as the city intensified its conversations around race, in part because of Rev. Gee’s movement,” Robinson said. “I was told to keep showing up, and especially to keep listening.”

The panel broached a variety of issues, from the need for white people to do their own work when it comes to understanding privilege to a continuum of respect.

“If you go to any police department and look at their guiding principles, ‘we’re going to treat people with dignity and respect,’” said Noble Wray, former Madison police chief.

“But what I’ve learned is that people don’t drill down to the word of respect. It’s an active word. It is not passive.”

Wray described respect as being on a continuum, with hostility at one end and tolerance in the middle.

“Communities can feel that you’re just tolerating them,” he said. “Respect is not a spectator sport. You’ve got to be active, curious and engaged.”

Educational equity expert Ananda Mirilli of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction said that white people trying to understand the experience of a person of color have to do the intellectual work of getting outside “identities centered in whiteness.”

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“How can you look at yourself, inside, and what’s your role in that centralization?” Mirilli said. “What are you perpetuating, intentionally or unintentionally?

“How are you going to get over that fear and shame and lean in?”

According to Miller, one way forward will be leaving behind the intellectual, scientific discussion of systemic racism and realize that we’re all talking about real lives and real people.

“When we’re talking about race and equity,” she said, “it’s like a group of people went out into space and woke up and saw this world and have lots of questions.

“Everything they thought they knew has been turned upside down. That is the case not only for the white community, but in some ways, it’s true for those of us who have always been awake … to manage the ‘woke’ people coming from a good positive space like a bull in a China shop.”

“I can be in a loving compassionate space with you,” added Mirilli. “But you’ve got to do the job. You’ve got to do the work.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the organization Ananda Mirilli represented. She was representing the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.