LANSDALE >> Sitting in a circle of about 30 people inside Lansdale’s Trinity Lutheran Church on Wednesday night, Brenda Wiggins had a simple but impassioned message to share.
“I want to be heard,” Wiggins implored. “I’m looking for people who are willing to stand by me so that this cannot continue. This is America.”
“What can we as white people do to help you?” a woman sitting next to Wiggins asked her. “Can you tell us?”
“Just listen,” Wiggins replied. “Just listen.”
The exchange was part of a nearly two-hour community forum advertised by the church as “Racism in Today’s World” — part of an ongoing conversation about racism and prejudice from the local to the global level led by the Rev. Paul Lutz, who was inspired to launch the gatherings after a controversy erupted in August when the church posted the “Black Lives Matter” on a sign outside the church.
Wednesday night’s forum, a follow-up to a similar event in early September, was led both by Lutz, the church’s senior pastor, and Cecily Harwitt, the statewide campaign director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild) — a faith-based group that advocates for improved schools, fair wages, affordable housing and other issues that affect all communities, but especially communities of color, in the greater Philadelphia region.
Harwitt said at the outset of the conversation that it’s imperative for white people to reflect on how they benefit from “invisible privileges” as a starting point for understanding that racism is still pervasive in American society.
Harwitt insisted that oftentimes when people discuss racism — which she defined as “prejudice plus power” — “we think immediately of people using racial slurs and we think, that’s not considered acceptable anymore, so racism is over,” when that’s not the case, particularly when it comes to institutional racism.
In discussing invisible privilege, Harwitt brought up the G.I. Bill of Rights, which was created to provide returning World War II veterans with tuition and job training assistance, access to low-cost mortgages and low-interest business loans, and other means of achieving prosperity.
She said it was just one example of historical policy that, when actually put into practice, disproportionately benefited white veterans versus black veterans and created certain economic and educational advantages for whites that their descendants — including perhaps some of the people in the room Wednesday night — may continue to enjoy today without realizing that black families were not given an equal opportunity to achieve that “American Dream.”
Heads nodded as the conversation continued in a similar big-picture fashion — as Harwitt discussed the role racism plays in education funding and the fight to increase wages, particularly in employment sectors comprised primarily of minority workers — though talk eventually turned to peoples’ personal experiences with racism and prejudice.
Wiggins, who was one of three black people who attended the forum, described how her daughter had been bullied and called the N-word at her predominantly white school, oftentimes in front of teachers who ignored it.
Another woman immediately countered that a white member of her family had been similarly treated while attending a predominantly black school. “You’re not the only person who experiences discrimination,” she said sharply to Wiggins.
Others quickly jumped into the exchange, suggesting that the two could look at those incidents as a shared experience and find common ground rather than use them as a source of anger and division.
With Lutz’s encouragement, the group focused on the positive by brainstorming ways they could increase their understanding of the myriad ways racism manifests itself as a necessary precursor to effecting change. One of the group’s collective goals was to expose themselves to more stories of black experiences and further explore the notion of “invisible white privilege,” and to that end, many people in the room, noting that Trinity Lutheran’s congregation is predominantly white, strongly suggested reaching out to black churches in the Lansdale area and setting up joint meetings — perhaps on “neutral ground” — so that white people and people of color could be more equally represented in future forums.
Lutz acknowledged that would be one of his main priorities going forward.
Afterward, Lutz said he was pleased that the night’s dialogue was respectful and constructive, and that the main purpose of the forums is to foster positive dialogue about difficult issues rather than simply having people “respond out of defensiveness.”
“It’s so exciting that something like this is happening in Lansdale,” Harwitt said, adding that she was gratified so many attendees seemed open to personal reflection and further educating themselves about racism and privilege instead of simply seeing themselves as totally enlightened regarding such matters.
Wiggins said she felt good about the night’s discussion, even if it’s just the start of much more work that needs to be done. “I think the message that racism really exists is starting to get through,” she said. “I think some of the people who heard what was said tonight will take that home with them and really think about it.”
On her way out of the church, Lansdale resident Norma Nish said of the forum that “it’s good that it’s kept the conversation ongoing — we’ve got to keep talking and find a way for different community groups to get together and engage with each other about this.”
She also hoped that the next conversation would focus even more on the specific challenges Lansdale faces regarding race. “We need to talk about where we go, where we shop, where we drive and what’s happening in those places, because when you know about what’s really going on in your community, you begin to have an awareness of what needs to change.”