I was a panelist for the roundtable economic justice workshop about wealth inequalities. I work for the St. Louis office of the American Friends Service Committee; one of our campaigns is called "Life over Debt." The campaign emphasizes Africa's crushing debt burden in calling for the cancellation of unfair debt held by international financial institutions. I was a little nervous as I always am when I do public speaking but I was enjoying and learning. I was one of three Black people in a crowded room but I'm used to that. Being Black often means sharing space with those that share your American experience, but not your African American experience. Sometimes something really ugly happens. Sometimes something mildly ugly happens. But the vast majority of the time, nothing ugly happens at all. As a result, it is always jolting when something weird comes (seemingly) out of nowhere.
We were into the Q and A session when 1 was confronted with the word "Negro." It was not a word I was expecting to hear in a discussion titled "Reversing Wealth Inequalities" but there it was, placidly offered up to me like any other word. "Okay, calm down," I told myself, "What is the context?" But I couldn't calm down.
Nevertheless I made an effort to focus on what the questioner was saying. He was a White male, maybe in his 50s or 60s. His demeanor wasn't hostile so 1 tried to understand why he would haul out this sledgehammer of a word. From what I could gather, he felt that I shouldn't have used the word "we" in describing the systems that perpetuate institutionalized poverty. To paraphrase, "We should become more sensitized to the word 'we' just as we have become sensitized to the word 'Negro.' We don't use the word Negro anymore. If I said Negro right now, people would probably get very upset."
I did get very upset. And confused. He was standing there repeating at me the very word that he was describing as upsetting. On top of that his comment seemed absurd to me. I wasn't the only one. A fellow panelist, also a White male, said to me, "While he's complaining about the word 'we,' he's used the word 'we' several times just in asking this question."
I had no response for him. I knew that if there was a meaningful dialogue to come from this comment, it wasn't about the word "we." The word Negro was unexpected but I know that it didn't just come out of nowhere. It came out of his White American experience.
As for my experience, I wasn't...