I would like to tell you a story: How to Talk Racism

19 April 2021

For ArtEZ studium generale, Pom writes about his personal experiences with racism. These stories symbolize the many institutions where similar experiences are felt. When we have the will to change as an institute, we must also provide space for stories that can encourage change. That is why we think it is important to provide a platform for these personal stories.

Hello, My name is Pompadó Z.R. Martha, and I would like to tell you a story, do not worry, it will not take long; this was just the start… a story about: How to Talk Racism (part 2).

Kendrick Lamar - Mortal Man, To pimp a butterfly, 2015

The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it.
Its only job is to eat or consume everything
around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city,
while consuming its environment the
caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive.

One thing it noticed is how much the
world shuns him, but praises the butterfly.
The butterfly represents the talent,
the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar.

But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the
butterfly as weak and figures out
a way to pimp it to his own benefits.

Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar
goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him;
He can no longer see past his own thoughts;
He's trapped.

When trapped inside these walls certain ideas take roots;
such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city.

The result?
Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant.
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that
The caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are
Completely different, they are one and the same.

In this poem in his album To pimp a butterfly Kendrick Lamar tries to describe the response of human behaviour onto the institutionalized structure that keeps a person from being and feeling equal to others. He is using the caterpillar as a metaphor for the Black Artist, such as I, being oppressed and placed lower in hierarchy than the white artist. He also tries to articulate, poetically, the struggles a POC has to endure to survive.

I chose this poem to continue the conversation on race.

This last year has been a real rollercoaster for many POC. There were many discussions about their contribution to the societal dilemmas; how the media are portraying them; how the dominant hetero norm is depriving them of expressing themselves, either on gender, beliefs, class, etc.; feeling left out of the equation of being an average human being regardless of ethnicity or nationality. The necessity to talk about racism is vivid. This dialogue should be treated and engaged with the utmost respect for the following three bases:

(1) Because racism is a sensitive topic that has been scaring the human race for years, it affects its daily life regularly and is still being considered ‘an open wound.’

(2) It is a topic that influences people's lives within the social construct we are now living in, and the privilege of freedom of speech is not normalized or is the same within every culture/ethnic representation.

(3) We, as humans, are not always the most emphatic beings and are easily corrupted by our egos. This means we tend to look at what benefits us, our group/sect/cult(ure), before looking at how our actions affect others. We tend to defend our group and only praise the positive side and neglect/hide its imperfection under the rough; say (for example) ‘yeah, but everybody does it too’ instead of admitting the wrongs and try to fix it.

Only whenever we are aware of our privileges, prior, during, and after this conversation, are we improving and creating a safe space for these kinds of conversations. It is a matter of (a) accepting that, as a person, you also have been, are, or will be racist/the discriminator (possibly unintentionally); (b) you won't be perfect at it.

I want to give a full explanation of this topic because it is something that I experience daily, and it is one of the reasons I feel so deprived from being me within ArtEZ. It also makes me feel like I am not enough and less validated. It happens more often than you may realize. It puts people of colour in a survival mode – pushing them towards a burn-out, or even worse, thinking of bringing an end to their… career.

So, today I want to tell you about talking about racism in a structured way without ending up in an endless conversation full of conflict and constrictions of real people's emotions.

Now you might ask; How can anyone talk about race without hurting someone? For this I developed this 4 step dialogue technique to keep the conversation on track without diverting to a collateral topic.

In this blog I will share with you the first two steps:

Step 1: DEFINE the topic as an entity
Start with making a ‘collective agreement’. You first need to agree on the topic you will talk about. Acknowledge, as a collective, that racism will become an entity. Define what RACISM is by talking about the matter, not under the influence of personal emotions. This part of the process should be logical and surgical, and this means: do not include yourself in the conversation. This doesn't mean you cannot use comparison as a tool to identify racism. Only when all parties agree on what the topic is, it will be discussed with human empathy and connection. Next, and of fundamental importance, is to collectively agree on what the goal of this talk should be. Try to be honest with what your agenda is, what your goal is, and your expectations. The set agenda should at all times be straightforward. There shouldn't be leverages of multiple planned goals but the one goal EVERYBODY agreed on, including political agenda, commercial agenda, educative agenda, etc. Furthermore, take into account that not all your personal goals will survive this first step; you either accept it or DO NOT continue if you cannot withhold the agreements made in this step.

Step 2: FOCUS solemnly on the entity
To have an honest conversation it is necessary to commit to only this one entity that you have agreed upon. Other entities, that are either similar or related to other forms of discrimination, need to be discarded from the discussion.

For example, if we are going to talk about bread, we are not going to talk about how it is made, how to eat it, under which circumstances one is allowed to eat it, how cake or cookies are similar to bread, or how many types of bread there is. Because to start talking about any of these side-topics only makes us lose focus of what was intended to be discussed. Issues aligned or adherent to racism (for example colorism, classism, protectionism, neo-/post- colonialism, humanism, segregation, apartheid, etc.) should not be ignored but rather acknowledged as genuine/authentic, but not be dragged into the held conversation.

The POC community is resilient - connecting and interacting in a flexible and broad context as it is diverse. The concept of ‘black’ consists of many ethnicities or nationalities with different religion/beliefs, experiences, moral compasses, culture, food, you name it, making it difficult to make a generalization that fits all. One of the main downfalls of racism is the personalized stereotype that creates division within one group. Acknowledging diversity is a beautiful thing and of enormous importance because it shows you that we, as humans, are rare/unique and exquisite. The UTMOST respect is required whenever we are expressing our differences. There should be no room for egos in such a vital talk, such as about racism. What it (racism) is and how we can minimize or abolish it is up to the participants of this talk to recognize and to do EGO-free with the talk’s integrity to remain intact. It is also vital to realize POC is more of a generalization than a specific ethnic group; it is a sort of tool to divide white people from others and is mainly used to create an image of superiority: white is elite, and the other isn't. And as a consequence, one can determine what kind of privilege someone has over the other. Once we realize this is a systematic blind spot, we can break the pattern and have a more delegated focus of attention on the topic that is being discussed. We could call this ‘conscientization’, a key concept in the approach of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire`s, meaning the ways in which individuals and communities develop a critical understanding of their social reality through reflection and action. This involves examining and acting on the root causes of oppression as experienced in the here and now. It is this ‘conscientization’ that opens the eye of a community to whether you are privileged or not, and how to use your privilege.

I would like to tell you a story, do not worry, it will not take long. Next time I am going to teach you step 3 and 4 of how to talk about racism.

By Pompadó Z.R. Martha