With the vitriolic nature of the discourse on race in America, it is no wonder most people try to sidestep the conversation altogether. But, what we need is more conversation on race—not less. So, I was pleased when Bellarmine College Prep high school invited me to their Race in the 21st Century discussion.
As the program manager for the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza’s Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute (MALI), I work to create opportunities for more diversity in the arts and cultural sector. Through the program, I seek to eliminate barriers that prevent local multicultural artists from reaching their full potential. A core part of my work is to lead conversations on race-based inequities—so I was excited to come and speak to Bellarmine students.
Yet, I had a lingering question: was Bellarmine really ready for this conversation?
In my work, I find that while many organizations pay lip service to addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. However, when it comes time to take the medicine by embracing the truth of racial inequity, it becomes too bitter a pill to swallow. Defensiveness becomes the order of the day even our supposedly liberal enclave.
I have a vested interest in moving the race conversation forward. Therefore, I have been working on honing my language when it comes to addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want my speech and rhetoric to not dilute uncomfortable truths while also providing invitations for honest dialogue. To this end, the young men at one the Silicon Valley’s most acclaimed private schools would be a good test audience.
When I arrived at Bellarmine, my concerns about the school’s readiness for the discussion on race were quickly allayed. Bellarmine Director of Christian Service Steve Pinkston greeted me and explained that the “Race in The 21st Century” conversation was part of Bellarmine’s eighth annual Human Diversity day. Topics for previous Human Dignity days have included a range of topics, including poverty and immigration. Mr. Pinkston acknowledged the sensitive nature of the race discussion and shared that Bellarmine had spent a full year planning for this day
The school had invited a “who’s who” roster of people from the area’s multicultural arts and social justice agencies to deliver more than 20 workshops dealing with issues of race and inequality. Workshops included ”Racial and Social Justice in The Arts,” presented by Ron P Muriera; “Challenging Islamophobia,” presented by CAIR-SFBA; and, “Seeking Redemption,” presented by Silicon Valley De-Bug.
My workshop, entitled “Unpacking Privilege,” used racism and white privilege as the starting point for conversation. I also touched on issues such as toxic masculinity and classism. Using relevant reference points like sports, dating apps, and the movie Black Panther, we talked about the various forms of privilege that exist in our society and raised how we benefit from such privilege. We discussed the ways in which we perpetuate them—sometimes without knowing it.
The two 50-minute sessions I conducted were lively and engaging. There was head nodding, there was some pushback, but no student was asleep at his desk. (In my previous work with high-school aged youth, I’ve found that slumbering students is always a possibility). In general, I left with the impression that Bellarmine, as an institution, is more than ready to host these types of discussions. Moreover, the students were more eager to have this discussion than most adults I meet.
I think that, for many of us adults, we reach a certain station in life—constructing an airtight narrative about how we get here. Oftentimes, in this story we tell ourselves, our individual hard work is front and center. We don’t take much time to better understand unearned perks, also known as privilege, that are baked into every aspect of society.
We fail to pay attention. We become callous to the struggles of others because it runs counter to our own narrative of success.
In both of my workshop sessions with the Bellarmine students, I encouraged them to be curious about other people’s stories. I also left them with the message that they have incredible power, potential and privilege.
I noted to them that by taking the discussion about race head-on, they can to live up to Bellarmine’s creed, “Men For Others.”
Demone Carter is an award-winning artist, educator, and creative catalyst from San Jose. Performing under the name DEM ONE, he has released several albums and was named a 2016 Silicon Valley Artist Laureate. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Interested in writing an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].