Huffpost Chicago

Race: Are We Over It? Event Offers Lively Discussion About Segregation, Race Relations In Chicago And Beyond

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Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit

When Barack Obama was elected, many people wanted to shout "racism no longer exists!" from the rooftops. Even last week following President Obama's State of the Union Address--MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews proclaimed "It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour." While most of us cringed at his statement, some Chicago-based organizations decided that an honest conversation about where Chicagoans stand on racial issues was in order.

On Saturday, Vocalo, a nonprofit radio station, joined Mindhearted, Inc., a diversity education organization, for a "Real Talk On Race" just blocks from Obama's Kenwood home. Organizers invited the community to the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center to discuss whether or not we as a society are really "over" race. The consensus? Not so much.

Vocalo host Tom Herman teamed up with Mindhearted President Kara Burrell Wright and planned the event as an opportunity for people to become "more aware of their interactions with people of other races, and increase awareness of [their] own experience," Herman told the Huffington Post.

"We wanted to create a safe space for things that are challenging," Wright said.

Despite Vocalo's reliance on audio, Herman and Wright agreed not to record Saturday's conversation, which included a group of twenty women and men.

The Huffington Post was allowed to enter into the discussion while respecting Real Talk's need for participant confidentiality.

Wearing tags bearing their first names, the participants identified themselves as local teachers, social workers and mothers. All but one was either white or African-American, with not one white man present.

"Much race work has typically been talking about the black/white paradigm," Wright said. "The metaphor of the two as bookends is in use--move them closer and you move all the races closer."

In a city deemed "hypersegregated" by many demographers, many at the "Real Talk" seemed frustrated.

"Chicago is so segregated--and it's OK with everyone," one woman said.

Others agreed, one participant adding that Chicago was a city of "quiet segregation."

Leading the group through a series of exercises designed to force participants to both self-identify and self-segregate, Wright asked that everyone rely on their experiences alone as their expertise. Stories and questions about first experiences with race, friendships across racial boundaries, common humanity and white versus black perceptions of race propelled the meeting an extra hour beyond schedule.

The mood following the discussion was mixed.

"I was surprised we were all so open--I thought there would be one moment when we could close up, or get scared," one young woman said. "Everyone here is degreed, though--that's not an honest representation," said one man, adding, "We didn't scratch the surface."

Others hoped to continue the discourse, but hoped classism would be addressed in future conversations.

"In order to address the power structure [between blacks and whites] we have to address poverty and class," said an African-American participant, speaking to a common feeling among the attendees.

Jinja, a local musician and brand developer, was among the most vocal about wanting "Real Talk" events in the future.

"I was happy that there was no hostility, but I would have really liked to have more diversity. I really did miss the white male voice."

Another participant, who requested not to be named, felt similarly.

"It was interesting to hear people's discrepancy of opinion--it sort of motivated me to pay more attention. As an educator, I definitely think it's important to continue."

The lengthy discussion and people's desire to move forward was very encouraging to Wright.

"[Real Talk] confirms for me that this is desired outside the academic space--it confirms and validates what I do. We want--and need--to talk about this."