Breaking the oppression of racism can be difficult because too often we focus on individuals and what they do and say, rather than on the bigger systemic and structural levels, where prejudices are supported and embedded – and often invisible, Marjorie Trueblood-Gamble, told several hundred people at the second “Unpacking Racism” forum Saturday at Southern Oregon University. Our media fall down on reporting racism, according to a video she showed, because two-thirds of stories focus on individual failings, or acts of overt racism, which we think should be shamed and corrected, but too often we dismiss institutionalized racism and walk away from high black incarceration rates, bad housing and families torn apart, because we can say, “Well, we’ve got a black president and Oprah is a billionaire.”

“We can’t resolve the oppression of racism until we talk about the biggest issues and gain awareness,” Trueblood-Gamble said. 

The SOU Director of Diversity & Inclusion asked “how many of you are not racist?” When only a few hands went up, she said, “Good, you’re all able to see you have some racism.” Where racial oppression comes from, she adds, is that we recognize racism is like a treadmill and you can walk with it, stand in place or walk against the status quo and strive to be anti-racist.

Jennifer Ware of Southern Oregon Health Equity Coalition explained “micro-aggressions” and how they are built into the racist structure of this country as seemingly minor slights and dismissals, such as saying “I’m not racist; I have many black friends” or mistaking a female in a hospital for a nurse, when she’s a doctor.

The emphasis was on community building, bringing submerged fears and hurts out onto the table and being willing to be uncomfortable as everyone works through their innate prejudices, learns to communicate honestly and ferrets out often unconscious states of privilege and discrimination.

Breakouts of those present into smaller groups served as a space to confess one’s micro-aggressions and brought up emotion, with a willingness to have more such forums and to take action in the outside world, with some saying they would talk to school principals about it and make it a part of the search for a new superintendent in Ashland. 

“I get the feeling the community definitely wants to go forward with more conversations like these and dealing with these issues, so we can find creative solutions,” said participant Jayne Dutra.

“It’s a good step against racial prejudice on our community,” said Peace House Chair Elizabeth V. Hallett, adding that the audience was almost all white and there needs to be a dialog, with all sides expressing their hurt and fears.

Lisa Schumacher said, “We created community, raised awareness and got the opportunity to participate in something bigger than my day-to-day awareness. Going forward, we need more meetings like this to help end systemic and institutionalized racism and see how we are part of it as individuals.” 

Daniel Verner notes, “I felt the entire experience helped me expand my consciousness and be sensitive to what I say and how I say it. The community will continue to promote involvement in this type of event and strengthen the importance of diversity.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.