Being an “Other” in America: Reflections from an Undoing Racism workshop

“Why is it important for you and your organization/institution to undo racism?” This question was posed to participants on the opening night of The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism training. As everyone in the room introduced themselves and answered this question, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Can racism even be undone?”

In September, three MACDC staff members and two resident leaders in the Mel King Institute’s Public Housing Training Program participated in the Undoing Racism workshop. The two-and-a-half-day workshop challenges participants to analyze the structures of power and privilege that hinder social equity, and prepare them to be effective organizers for justice.

Anti-racism training is mandatory for all MACDC staff members, as part of our internal efforts to advance racial equity. This year, our newest staff members, Communications and Operations Fellow (that’s me), Nadine Sanchara, and the Mel King Institute’s Community Engagement Fellow, Bianca Diaz, participated in The People’s Institute Undoing Racism training. Manager of the Public Housing Training Program, Sarah Byrnes, did the training for the second time, this time alongside two residents in the program.

The training took place at Tent City’s Community Room, which, given its history, was quite an appropriate location. About 40 participants sat in a circle in the large room, a deliberate set up so that we can look at each other, and everyone would be equally engaged. The first night of the training was set aside for introductions. Once that was out of the way, the next two full days were available for a deep dive into racism in America and how it impacts community organizing.

We examined the history of racism and explored topics such as power, internalized superiority/inferiority, and gatekeeping, among others. Many difficult, but necessary, conversations were had. One thing in particular that stuck with me was the use of language to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Even as a person who works in communications every day, I often fail to think about the words I use and what they mean to the people they are describing – often because many of these words and phrases have become socially acceptable.

Another part of the training that stood out to me was a segment where everyone had to say what they liked about being of a particular ethnic group. People were grouped into the “standard” ethnic groups: White, Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous. I had some difficulty answering this question. I am of Indian descent, born and raised in Guyana, South America. I identify as Indo-Guyanese or Indo-Caribbean. I moved to the US four years ago and that was when I became “Asian,” since I often have no other choice but to check the box for Asian when filling out paperwork. This really made me think of how people are sometimes forced into certain boxes. America is so diverse, yet everyone must somehow fit into these five categories. Sometimes, when I’m asked the race/ethnicity question, I completely ignore the boxes and write my own thing. I feel a little rebellious when doing this, but it’s my tiny effort to step out of the box.

One resident leader who attended the training said, “It was intense and very much needed. I look forward to applying all I learned to my work with other residents.” As for me, I left on the final day of the training with the realization that I have some introspection to do, and a lot to learn. Whether racism can be undone, I am optimistic, but I think it will be a long and difficult process. The trainers emphasized that this work must be done “from the grassroots up, and from the insides out.” So, I will start with myself and with those closest to me. I have a list of books to read, and podcasts to listen to. I will try my best to think more critically about my words and my actions. And I plan to continue to have those difficult conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues.