Last week I received an email from a colleague about the Spirit & Place Festival, November 1st -10th. This will be the 18th annual festival so it’s safe to say Spirit & Place know what they are doing. For context, Spirit & Place is a project of The Polis Center, a unit of the Indianapolis University of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. This year’s festival theme is RISK, http://www.spiritandplace.org/. As part of the theme the organizers and coordinators thought it was a great idea to lift up the issue of Race, as an opener for the festival and in the form of a competition: “A competition about Race”http://www.spiritandplace.org/ . For several days I sat on this email trying to work through what is it exactly about this so-called opportunity that did not agree with me. This past Sunday sitting with a group of colleagues and peers I was finally able to articulate why I am troubled and why this time Spirit & Place after 18 years, as well intended as it is, their organizer, planners and sponsors have it wrong.
First let me start with the title, “A Competition about Race”. The notion of addressing Race through a competition I find highly offensive. As a person of color who has experienced overt racism, stop and frisks, driving while black, followed in department stores as well a myriad of ongoing micro-aggressions to this day; I find to relegate my experience and others like me to “A Competition about Race” denotes the lack of sensitivity of the sponsors, organizers and coordinators. Some may argue it’s a start that there is courage in this opportunity and Spirit & Place should be commended. May be they should, however, with all of the many initiatives underway from Velocity to the Bi-Centennial real courage would be to address the issue of Race though all of those and many other structural mediums.
As person of color the issue of Race has never in my experience been a competition but rather a way of life which has resulted in less than savory outcomes. It is obvious to me that sponsors and organizers have never experienced the ugly and vile atrocities that racism has dispersed on boys, girls, men, women, old and young. It appears; the issue of race has been relegated to their catch phrase, “One energizing night. Four innovators. One $20,000.00 award”. I’m left to believe in their estimation addressing Race is a side-show to highlight a superficial approach to address an issue that has deep seeded roots in a City and State that has on all accounts done its best to limit and /or relegate people of color to have significant impact within its landscape. To say I am conflicted is an understatement. Yet in a juried fashion we find not only the discussion but the speculated planning process on Race being shaped by members of the dominant culture.
The language used to define the awardees ideas is “daring” referencing the implementation of their respective projects. From my lens and the few community members I have shared my thoughts; anything that is established or constructed around Race is not “daring” but rather “much needed and long over-due” Furthermore, they state whatever idea the awardees come up with is “for reshaping notions of race in Central Indiana”. I put forth, how can we develop an approach to address the burning issue of Race when there has not been an adequate and intentional conversation about what is the notion of Race in Central Indiana? In essence we have avoided the uncomfortable and foundational conversation for an event that reduces my experience and many others like me to a competition.
If Spirit & Place really wanted to uplift RISK it would have more courage in developing a serious foundation and not another check the box to support its and other organizations imperatives grounded in a façade of “inclusion”, “equity” and “diversity”
I think everyone knows that Race is complex, just look at the many cultures and ethnicities that make up Central Indiana and America. The many cultures and ethnicities that add to the economy and social fabric but experience the highest rates of unemployment, mass incarceration, inequity, exclusion, segregation and an onslaught of micro-aggressions. When it comes to the experience of Race(ism) for people of color, it is NOT a competition. It’s our way of life; it’s the way we have been continuously systematically and negatively impacted from the playgrounds all the way through to the boardrooms. We just celebrated 50 years since the March on Washington where it was concluded, we have come not far enough and have a long way to go; 50 years since the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that took the lives of four little girls, Yusef Hawkins, Eleanor Bumpers, James Bird, Amadu Diallo, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell, I put forth the question:
Was Race a competition to them?