Relationships Matter

In my last post I talked about the Attributes of White Supremacy Culture and invited you to join us in doing our White Work, while simultaneously investing in local Black liberation efforts being led by the Center for Food, Faith and Justice. If you care to share this series with a friend, send them here

In this email, I flash back to a memory with my mentor…a memory that reminded me of the fundamental thing missing in White Supremacy Culture.

One day, while reflecting on the attributes of white supremacy culture as they play out in me and around me, I suddenly flashed back to a memory from the days when I travelled the country with my mentor, Bob Penn…. This memory helped me understand one of the great costs of white supremacy culture to all of us…

A memory: 

“Relationships matter,” my mentor, Bob Penn, repeated as he hoisted his suitcase into the overhead compartment.

We were finally back on the airplane. Maybe it was Kansas City. Or perhaps St. Petersburg. Or Austin. The cities were all blurring together. At any rate, we were settling into our seats and clicking our seat belts. My skin and hair had the waxy feel and chemical floral scent that was standard after a stay at the Hyatt Hotel. No matter what City, the Hyatt hotel had the same smell. I knew that when I got home and opened my suitcase, that scent would billow out like a chemical bloom. I couldn’t wait to wash it off.

I was tired. My belly was all bloated after several days of travel. We would have only a few minutes to pause until the plane was up in the air and we could open our tray tables from the seatbacks in front of us and begin drafting our summary letter to the lead agency. Bob Penn would talk, I would write. But before then, he had a few things to say. 

I didn’t want any lessons right then. I didn’t want to be reminded that I should call our contact at the site before sending the letter. I didn’t want to review why that last meeting hadn’t been a success: the lead agency had neglected to get the parents and youth to the table. Sure, they had invited them by email, but they hadn’t taken the time to build relationships with them first. So of course, the kids and families didn’t come. 

He reviewed what seemed obvious to me by then: Decision-making meetings without those who were closest to the struggle—the high risk youth and their parents and pastors—these could never be a success. No matter how “successful” the meeting might have appeared to those who were present. 

Getting people from the community to the table (I.e. Black and Brown parents and kids) only happened one way: through personal relationships. 

At the time, I thought I knew this. I didn’t want it repeated. 

This past Spring, as I was thinking again about the racial disparities in our school district in Berkeley, California. We were in budget season, which means the School Board Directors and the Superintendent were making decisions about how to allocate dollars for next school year: 2021-2022, the school year when we will make our way back from a year of distance learning under quarantine. The racial disparities will be tragic. The difference between outcomes for white kids and Black kids in particular will be a gaping hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

The critical budget meetings happened behind closed doors….? No matter what comes of them, they cannot be a success. Because the high-risk youth, their parents and pastors and community-based advocates….. they are not at the table. 

In a recent text exchange with a fellow white mom who serves on her child’s BUSD elementary school’s PTA, she was complaining that the PTA at her school did not know exactly what Black families needed this year…. “Because the Black parents don’t fill out our surveys.”

From a white academic standpoint, it seems quite reasonable to expect parents to fill out surveys if they want the needs of their children to be considered. The expectation that we can learn about people we don’t know through a survey makes less sense when understood from the standpoint of a more relational, human-centered culture. After all, who formulated the questions?

Relationships matter. Bob Penn had said so many times. I realize now why he repeated this like a mantra, again and again and again: 

Relationships matter: The white-hegemonic world–exemplified and reproduced by the white academy–eclipses this most basic human truth so completely and consistently, that if we spend time in white spaces it must be repeated:

Relationships matter. 

Relationships matter.

Relationships matter.

In my next email, I explore further the cost of a culture that does not value relationships: the cost for white people, and the cost for the whole community.