2017-07-20 / News

‘White privilege’ discussed in Saco

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

SACO – Community members gathered along the shores of Ferry Beach in Saco for a discussion about race and privilege in America.

The Ferry Beach Park Association held a two-day conference beginning Friday, July 14 to give attendees an opportunity to learn more about white privilege and dismantling white supremacy. The conference was one of many educational opportunities the Ferry Beach Park Association holds at its 32-acre campus on Morris Avenue. The organization is a nonprofit that promotes arts, education, environmental care, personal growth and social justice.

Cathy Stackpole, executive director of Ferry Beach Park Association, said she was pleased with the outcome of the conference. Seventeen people from Maine and other parts of the country gathered to reflect on their experience of race and how best to approach the topic. Stackpole said it can be difficult for people to understand the privileges they may not realize they have.

“We worked with the group around the concept of critical humility,” she said. “Thinking through how one’s self-identity is caught up in the system they’re in.”

Stackpole said everyone is born into a system and that white people don’t realize the advantage that is afforded them. She said it’s important for white people to have conversations about privilege to push society forward, adding that the work of understanding white privilege is for white people, not people of color.

“In order to make a shift we have to hold one another accountable,” she said.

Brad Cohen, director of professional development at the Boston Public Health Commission and co-facilitator of the conference, said the work white people do needs to be in collaboration with people of color. Cohen said it’s important to check in with people of color and share leadership with them.

“Racism is a problem of white people but it has its biggest impact on people of color,” he said.

Boston’s Public Health Commission is a public agency that provides services and programs for the city’s most vulnerable populations. Cohen said stress from living in a racist society directly and negatively affects people of color’s physical and mental health.

Cohen said the roots of racism can be traced to deliberate policies and practice. He said The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or G.I. Bill, which in part offered low interest mortgages to veterans of World War II, benefited almost exclusively white people who served in the military. Cohen said this contributed to segregated suburbs and a loss of tax revenue within large cities. Cohen said schools and infrastructure in many communities of color are largely underfunded for this reason.

“It essentially subsidized and shifted the advantage to white communities,” he said.

Stackpole said there are still systems in place to keep people of color from voting despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She said gerrymandering, the redrawing of voting districts, is one tool used to lessen the impact of people of color voting.

“Even when policy changes, practice can continue,” Cohen said.

Cohen said after the Fair Housing Act, an attempt to reduce discrimination by sellers and landlords, families of color were still not shown homes in white communities. He said individuals don’t need to have personal malice toward people of other races for the system to carry on separatist practices.

“Good people participate in a racist system without intending to or realizing,” Cohen said.

Stackpole said conference attendees began by admitting they don’t know what they don’t know about white privilege. She said understanding the history of systemic racism allows people to discover their privileges.

“How white people live in this world is different than how people of color live in this world,” Stackpole said.

Cohen said he grew up in Queens, New York, and accepted that some neighborhoods were white and some were black or Latino. He said he never wondered why some looked well cared for while others had potholes and broken lights. Despite feeling bad he never understood the reason for the difference. Cohen said as he grew older the world started to make more sense once he began learning different parts of history that had been hidden from him.

“There’s so much to learn and it never ends,” he said.

Stackpole said she began thinking about white privilege when she worked at a battered women’s center after college. She said black women in the program asked her to speak with the director about providing adequate hair care products. Stackpole said neither she nor her director had considered the different hair care needs.

Cohen said as a gay man he had early experiences of being different and excluded from advantages of society. Learning about Jim Crow and segregation reinforced his understanding of racism in American society. He said while he experienced oppression as a gay man he also experienced advantages as a white man.

“I had to begin to understand the interconnectedness of the multiple ways I identify,” Cohen said. “Then ask how I can use the advantages I have to align myself with people who experience disadvantages.”

Stackpole said when she was a child, boys were allowed a paper route when they were 12 but girls had to wait until they were 18. She said she couldn’t not see how boys were allowed opportunities girls weren’t. Stackpole said in a recent Saco Planning Committee meeting she noticed the city council was only white men.

“I began to look at all the people not in the room,” she said.

Cohen said the notion that other people may also work very hard and get denied certain advantages as a result of their work doesn’t take away from anyone else’s hard work. He said what’s unfair is the world doesn’t meet the hard work of all people in the same way.

“Using our advantage to make the world a more fair place doesn’t mean giving up what we have worked so hard for as individuals,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the most recent conference is one example of how Ferry Beach Park Association makes a difference. Cohen would like to see more people participate in events.

“This is a community thinking about our place in the world every week of the year,” he said.

A schedule of conferences and events can be found at ferrybeach.org. The next conference on white privilege will happen Feb. 3 and 4. Stackpole said Ferry Beach Park Association is a safe place for anyone interested in visiting.

“We are here for everyone in the community to share and be a part of something,” she said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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