Under Our Skin: Towards a Racially Just and Caring Community

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James Baldwin by Allan warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.

–Maya Angelou

This reflection is dedicated to actor and humanitarian, Kenajuan Bentley, whose loving-kindness, compassion, and encouragement first empowered and emboldened me to build trust-based relationships with African-American men and to actor and entertainer par excellence, Tramell Tillman, who accompanies and guides me on this journey.

Recently, I made five commitments to foster interracial understanding, communication, and inclusion—towards a racially more just and caring community. (They are listed at the end of the essay.)

Here’s a bit about my journey towards those commitments.

“Blues for Mister Charlie”

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In July of this year, 36 actors and company members from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) performed a dramatic reading of James Baldwin’s 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie.

The central event of the play is the murder of a young black man in a southern U.S. community. The murderer is white, and the play’s unfolding encompasses a wide range of characters from both “towns,” “White Town” and “Black Town.” The racial lines are clearly drawn and reinforced by explicit and implicit norms.

Baldwin’s title, “Blues for Mister Charlie,” is evocative. While the tragedy centers on the murder of a black man, Baldwin chose to highlight the moral “death” of the white man—the person of position and privilege, whose humanity is eroded by his inability to see, encounter, and care for the black members of his community.

The powerful reading riveted the audience as it truthfully examined various angles of race relations—interpersonal, social, cultural, and judicial.

A rude awakening

On June 24 of this year, OSF actor Christiana Clark encountered a middle-aged white man who was riding a bike in Ashland’s Railroad District Park, along A Street.

“It’s still an Oregon law, I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive and well here.”

That’s what Christiana heard shouted at her. She posted a video account of this encounter on Facebook. It spread far and wide. In Ashland, it spurred a new level of awareness, discussion, and a call to action.

A vocabulary for understanding four levels of racism

On August 13, 2016, Southern Oregon University Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble, shared four levels of racism with those of us who were gathered to go deeper into the hurt that we often perpetuate through our unthinking attitudes, gestures, and words, called “micro-aggressions.”

This four-level framework delineates individual and systemic levels of racism and its perpetuation.

Individual: intrapersonal and interpersonal

Systemic: institutional and structural

Addressing systemic racism at the institutional and structural levels requires sustained, vigilant action that includes advocacy and legal recourse to assure that we have just laws, policies, practices, and aligned law enforcement to protect people of color from racist attitudes and behaviors.

Individual racism plays out within every person—all of the assimilated beliefs, cultural messages, and life experiences we have had (intrapersonal)–and between persons (interpersonal).

What are we gonna do?

During the summer of 2015, the Los Angeles-based Lula Washington Dance Theatre performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Green Show. The African-American dancers and musicians performed with excellence. And, they awakened consciences.

During a heart-penetrating dance piece depicting police brutality towards African-American men, accompanied by soul-stirring Gospel music, a female dancer roamed through the audience, asking, “What are we gonna do?” This spirit-rousing question was posed in a gentle, haunting, and prophetic way.

I left the Green Show, asking, “What am I gonna do” to improve racial relations, especially between black and white men?

Challenged and guided by Tramell Tillman

tramellOSF actor Tramell Tillman played the central character in “Blues for Mister Charlie”: Richard Henry, the young black man who is murdered. Tramell played his role with power and range—from vulnerability to raging anger.

I and my family became acquainted with Tramell after his striking portrayal of Chris in Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which premiered at the OSF during the 2015 season. Since, he has become a dear and trusted family friend.

I asked Tramell to help me to explore more deeply what I was experiencing. Tramell listened to my questions attentively, and then shared perspective and advice.

  • Show up and be counted in this matter of just and healthy race relations. White allies are needed.
  • Explore the question, “What is white privilege and how is it benefiting me?”
  • Ask, “What threatens some white people (referring specifically to Black Lives Matter)?”
  • Be accountable. In a follow-up communication, Tramell wrote: “The communities both white and black must take accountability for our efforts in the push for equality. Effective communication is contingent on its sender. It is imperative that our white allies continue these conversations with the white community, holding each other accountable and simultaneously asking the hard questions.”
  • Draw on theatre as metaphor and medium for change. Tramell shared a compelling and promising possibility: “I firmly believe what we do on stage should be emulated in our communities: As actors we serve as mirrors of society; we mirror the highs and lows of our humanity–inciting a call to action, a change if you will. Whether it be in perspective, beliefs, and/or behaviors, I believe the theatrical call should resonate in our realities.”

I am seeing more and more clearly how whiteness is an intrinsic ticket to privilege and position.

I am also seeing how fear of the “different other” threatens a sense of security among many people. There’s a sense of scarcity, of limitations. A zero-sum game. If a black man gets something good in our society, I, a white person, am de facto diminished. So, this scarcity- and fear-based logic goes.

I have noticed a deepening and widening inner passion to foster trust-based relationships with African-American men, who have been singularly belittled, demeaned, and effaced as persons and as men—mainly by white men, holders of position and privilege. Slavery is the cruel genesis; racism is its continuation.

A counterpoint of racial inclusion

Music offers many wonderful metaphors for so much of life.

J.S. Bach is the master of musical “counterpoint”–when two melodic lines (in the treble and bass) co-create a harmony.

The quest for systemic racial justice and equity might be compared to the melody line in the bass clef; the building of trust-based and caring relationships between black and white men is a treble-clef melody. Both are critical to creating a culture of justice and caring.

Personal commitments

Now more awake to the ravages of slavery and racism in America, and the complacent attitudes and actions of white privilege, I’m personally committed to taking action in five ways.

  1. Living with questions about white privilege and threat
  2. Standing up for racial justice and equity at the community, state, and national levels
  3. Building relationships of trust and caring with African-American men
  4. Being accountable and holding the white community accountable in our quest for racial equality
  5. Seeing and experiencing theatre as metaphor and medium for personal transformation and social change

Emotional courage

These commitments I have made require emotional courage, because the wounds caused by slavery and racism and the resulting mistrust run deep in us, between us, and through our institutions and structures.

Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. —Brené Brown

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