It’s time to talk.
—by Anna Brower
Last October, I had the honor of introducing Mychal Denzel Smith, the final presenter in The Nation Speakers’ Series at Salt Lake City Library. Mychal Denzel Smith, if you’re not familiar, is a prolific writer and social commentator. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Ebony, Huffington Post and, of course, The Nation magazine. His first book, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching. will be published in June (Nation Books). He reports directly from the intersection of race, gender, politics, identity and power. I highly recommend that you check out his stuff.
During his 45-minute lecture, Smith riveted the audience with a searing, provocative discussion of race and policing. It became very clear, very fast, that making people feel comfortable about race is not a top priority for Smith.
Ending the killing and humiliation and repression of black people by governmental institutions definitely did seem to be a top priority for this insightful, honest and sometimes very funny journalist.
Mychal Denzel Smith’s work reminds us how painfully racist our country still is, no matter how much we want to talk about “how far we have come.” It bears witness to how privileged many of us continue to be, by a system of white supremacy.
Talking about those things is definitely not comfortable. But the almost all-white audience was surprisingly receptive to Smith’s message, especially when it came to his discussion about the systemic racism evidenced in our overly militarized police ranks. When he suggested we abolish the institution of U.S. law enforcement altogether, the audience broke into applause. Clearly taken aback, Smith later tweeted, “When the revolution pops off in Utah, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I, too, was surprised with the enthusiastic response to his “Race & Policing” lecture. I was surprised mainly because this is Utah, and Utahns like to be nice. There’s nothing nice about racism and white privilege, two sides of the same coin that continues to separate us, yet many Utahns appear ready to confront these issues.
The reality is, Utah’s institutions—schools, courts, board rooms, jails—are as racist as everywhere else and we hate talking about it. We think that admitting racism exists, acknowledging that we benefit from white privilege, means we are not nice people. But we must talk about racism, or things won’t change. And, trust me, they need to change.
Utah’s population is about 1.6% black; our state prison population is about 6.5% black. Often, while white public school kids get sent to the principal’s office, black students in Utah get sent to juvenile court, sometimes for the same behavior. In Salt Lake—arguably Utah’s most progressive city—arrests of black men and women occur more than four times as often as arrests of white people. These disparities are similar for Latino, Polynesian, Native American, mixed race, immigrant and refugee members of Utah communities.
Working with local activists on racial justice issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality and mass incarceration, I hear optimism and hope from emerging young leaders of color. I also hear a lot of rage and pain.
I’ve noticed that this hot bundle of anger—specifically about racialized policing and the lack of justice in our so-called justice system—is almost incomprehensible to Utah’s majority population, most of whom have never had a negative interaction with the police or any interaction with the rest of the criminal justice system.
There is a tendency for people who are not brutalized by the system to refuse to see it could be happening to anyone else. Ignoring this swell of hurt and anger among our neighbors of color is a terrible idea. Dismissing it as unfounded is unfair and shortsighted.
Talking about race, and pointing out racism, is imperative if we want to realize a country where constitutional rights are a reality for everyone. We can’t end racist practices and policies if we refuse to even talk about them. Luckily, these amazing leaders of color with whom I am honored to work are willing to have these difficult discussions. In fact, they are skilled at leading these conversations, and are chomping at the bit to do so. They don’t want to talk just among themselves, though. They want to talk with you.
Last year, the ACLU of Utah, Racially Just Utah and Raise Your Pen hosted #RaceMatters, an open mic performance event, on Salt Lake’s West side. Dozens of artists shared personal stories about race, identity and culture. Through song, dance, spoken word and comedy, they answered the question, “What does it mean to be a person of color in Utah?” There were no white performers, but many white audience members. There was no heckling or arguing, just a lot of listening, of trying to understand.
Another #RaceMatters performance will take place this month. To build our skills and envision this next incarnation of #RaceMatters, a team of us attended the NeighborWorks USA Community Leadership Initiative training in Louisville, Kentucky last fall. What came out of that event was an expanded concept for #RaceMatters. We plan to lead dialogues about race throughout the year. We will bring the conversation to magazines like CATALYST, to community radio programs and through #RaceMatters events in other Utah cities.
I invite my fellow white Utahns, those who want to learn how to participate helpfully in uncomfortable conversations about race, to join us this month for #RaceMatters. Come and listen. Just listen. Trust that others may indeed be having an experience of life in Utah that is vastly different than yours. You don’t have to have an answer to these experiences. Your first step can just be to hear about—and believe—them.
An invitation to come and listen.
Stories of Race | Culture | Identity
Spoken word. Music. Poetry. Dance. Storytelling.
(the big room in the back),
545 W. 700 South
6-6:30 treats, mingling
6:30-9 words & music
Anna Brower was born and raised in Salt Lake City. She is the Strategic Communications Manager of the ACLU of Utah.