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White People Confronting Racism

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Two weeks ago I participated in the eleventh annual White Privilege Conference. The WPC is a profound, life-changing experience. One of the many reasons people return to the WPC year after year is the opportunity it provides to meet hundreds of other committed social justice allies struggling with difficult issues of privilege, oppression and white supremacy. One of the participants I had the good fortune of seeing again this year is Holly Fulton, who was involved in the documentary film Traces of the Trade. In Traces, Holly and 9 other descendants of the largest slave trading business in U.S. history retrace the slave trade triangle of their ancestors' business, visiting Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba. Traces was the premier film for POV on PBS in June of 2008. Today it is used in history classes, shown in film festivals, at training conferences, and screened in a host of different venues for presentations, panels, dialogues and deep learning processes. For more information visit www.tracingcenter.org.

At the WPC, I had the opportunity to discuss this incredible experience with Holly, learn more about how it has impacted her life, and hear about her ongoing efforts.

What prompted you and your family members to embark on this journey?
My cousin Katrina called me in 1999 to tell me about her idea and invite me to join her. I was thrilled and very eager to be part of the project for a few reasons. I was doing diversity training at that time and was finding the work shallow and simplistic. After having participated in a powerful workshop called "Undoing Racism" with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond I knew my diversity training work was not at the level I wanted it to be. I come from a family where dark and ugly truths were not discussed, so not only was I getting an opportunity to dig into and talk about this ugly history, we were going to make a film about it to show all over the country, maybe beyond. I knew American history 'secrets' had to be revealed and discussed.

What was your goal in creating the documentary? What do you hope people get out of it?
Our goal was to initiate dialogue that has not happened at the level that is needed around these topics: the truths of American history; the legacy of slavery; how contemporary racism is connected to slavery; repair and reparations; the African American experience in the U.S.; taking actions for healing, including advocating for government involvement, etc. I could go on, the list is long. We also hoped the film would initiate actions that foster repair and that it would be used in the history curriculum in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. We felt this film was more for whites than blacks in terms of learning and waking up.

What did you learn in the process?
I could go on and on answering this question. You can read about many of my lessons in my cousin Tom DeWolf's book Inheriting the Trade. In addition to learning about my ancestors' slave trading business which I knew nothing about, I learned about the northeastern complicity in the slave trade and slavery, and how huge the involvement was. I learned about Africa and how much I didn't and still don't know about it. On a more personal note, I also learned a tremendous amount about my family and the training in racism and classism I grew up with. I also learned about being white, white privilege, white supremacy, and the whole race phenomenon and the operations of the system we live in today as a result of our history. I want to and continue to learn more about all of this.

What are the range of responses you hear from white people viewing the film?
The most common sentence I hear from whites is, "I did not know this," and this sentence is often expressed with anger or frustration or great surprise. Often people want to know what they can do; they are motivated to take action. I tell them to look at the website as there is a very thorough list of actions that can be taken. I hear about shame, guilt, sorrow, and anger. One person said, "I didn't want to come to this film because I figured it would be a white guilt trip, but it isn't". I was struck by that comment. Some whites whose ancestors came to the States recently don't feel responsible and have asked why should they feel responsible. These comments often lead into discussions about the responsibility of everyone today no matter what your ancestors did.

How have your various family members responded to this whole project?
I have cousins who are thrilled and help with spreading the word about screenings and think the film is an excellent project and have supported it emotionally and financially. Other cousins won't talk about it or have let me know they're not supportive. There are many more of the former than the latter, I believe. I know my parents would not have been happy about it at all. My mother may have been a bit torn as she was always concerned about the disenfranchised but she was also very proud of her ancestors and had all of us admiring them for the great folk they were.

What is your non-profit doing today?
The Tracing Center's mission is to create greater awareness of the vast extent of complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to inspire acknowledgement, dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies. The purpose for this is racial and economic justice, healing and reconciliation - for the benefit of all. All are involved, but the emphasis is reaching people of European heritage. The Center's efforts are mainly in these areas: education, schools, museums, public history organizations, faith communities, and workplaces.

Why do you come to the WPC? What is the WPC experience like for you?
I go to The White Privilege Conference because I love to be with lots of people who are doing similar work - social justice programs and projects that have the purpose of waking up to the reality of and healing from the "isms" - mainly racism. It's an opportunity to get a booster shot for this work which can be hard. I think many of the people who attend the WPC are veterans of the work and a good number of the workshops address the variety of topics at a 'deep' level. This means that participants have the opportunity to talk, listen, dialogue, and do different interactive processes which can be revealing, exposing, challenging, and uncomfortably honest. I like that process. I like depth, intensity, the truth, and even getting or being messy. It's a necessary part of the whole phenomenon of healing. So the conference has the following for me - and this is a partial list! : networking, fun, laughing, excitement, music, dancing, yelling, getting angry, crying, getting real, supporting, connecting, learning, getting reality checks, and buying good learning or teaching tools. White Privilege is all over the place and we whites need to get at it at a deep level. The conference helps that process.

In addition to doing outreach work with Traces, this experience has lead Holly to become actively involved in a number of non-profits. She is on the board of two social justice organizations: Coming to the Table and Class Action. She also volunteers for ArtsRising, an organization that builds community in the social change arts, and Challenge Day, directing workshops building connection and empathy in middle and high schools in the U.S. and abroad. Her story is inspiring many people around the country to examine their own lives and start actively working for social justice.