Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Race Talks | Borrowing Cultural Traditions

By Ginger Moshofsky 

In November I had the privilege of attending Race Talks: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism, at the Kennedy School.

A little background: Race Talks is a sort of lecture series that focuses on pertinent issues of race like “Interacial Relationships” or “Race and the Housing Crisis.” Instead of the usual “stand and deliver” format of most lecture series, Race Talks adds a couple of key elements which induce interaction and dialogue between the attendants.  
First of all, there is a panel of experts who speak to the topic. Instead of one person’s take on a topic, you get several points of view. This is not only informative but also sets the tone; different people have different experiences and may have differing opinions- and that is okay.

Next, at every Race Talks, the discussion moves from the podium to the tables. After the panelists have finished,  each table group discusses the topic. Before the discussion, the attendees are prompted to make sure that each table has a diverse mix of people. If not, they ask that a person or two move so each group has different races represented.

The Race Talks that I attended examined “Race and the Arts”.

When we moved to the table discussion portion of the evening, one of the things we did was introduce ourselves and our racial background. Now that’s something you don’t do every day. When we did, I was surprised to find that, despite how things looked at first glance, I was not sitting with only Caucasian people but also American Indian, Japanese and Mexican. We had a very interesting dialogue about “borrowing” traditions from other cultures. We questioned, when is it disrespectful to integrate a dance or an artistic style into American culture, and when is it an honor and a compliment? We talked about “fads”, like “Gangnam Style” or skull tattoos- did that bring to the masses interesting cultural elements from around the world or is it exploitive or something else? We bemoaned the practice of taking ceremonies that are sacred in their country of origin and making them spectacle in the United States. If these sound like heady topics, you are right. We found ourselves discussing these ideas and more with people of different races who we had never met before and it was fun!

The genius of Race Talks is that while everyone admits that talking through race issues with a diverse gathering of individuals is helpful and informative, few have figured out how to do it on a grass roots level and do it effectively. Donna Maxey ’70, founder and director of Race Talks, is the genius behind the “genius” of Race Talks.

Maxey has a history in education, has an extensive network and is a long time resident of Portland. As it explains in the Race Talks brochure, Maxey approached McMenamins Historian Tim Hills “with the idea to partner with McMenamins in a series that stepped out of the box of the typical history lecture into a more interactive realm- where the audience had a participatory role and left with a tangible task toward dismantling racism.”

The result is Race Talks: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism and it is brilliant. Maxey partners with McMenamins monthly to bring interesting topics to the Kennedy School. If you have not been to Race Talks, I urge you to mark your calendar for 7 p.m., the second Tuesday of the month. I hope to see you at Race Talks. 

Moshofsky is the Assistant Director of Alumni Relations at Pacific University. She is a Lewis & Clark alumna, freelance writer, thespian and activist on civil rights issues. 

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