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Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish

In March of 2018, I was having dinner at a cozy French bistro with my husband and daughter who was turning 30. The restaurant was small and intimate with a dining arrangement that we’re not likely to see for a while – about ten tables, pushed closely together.

After we raised our glasses to toast her big day, I raised a question, directed to my daughter, who is a strident feminist and activist.

At the time, I was producing storytelling events that accompanied the release of issues of my literary publication and I was thinking about hosting a themed event addressing race. I was picturing writers of varying skin colors, genders and religious backgrounds telling stories about our hometowns, our bodies and our religious upbringings – the things that connect us. I thought the optics would be poignant. I would co-host with non-White, non-female, non-suburban, non-Jewish producers. I even had a name: “Race, Place and Divine Grace.”

I shared this vision and waited for my daughter’s approving smile or encouraging word. I wanted her to be with me on this. Maybe even be a part of it.

She paused, took a sip of her wine and said, “Mom. It’s a lovely idea. But you aren’t the right person to do this.”

“What do you mean?” I said, with just a touch of indignance.

“It’s not yours to do. You are a White cisgender woman who lives in the suburbs. Your events attract people who are like you. If you want to address race, you need to leave your own neighborhood and go into the ones where those stories are being told.”

I heard what she was saying, but her comments rankled me.

My daughter had been educated at schools where more than 50 languages were spoken. Her Boomer mother had grown up in a diverse neighborhood, graduated from a high school committed to building a student body of multiple races and was an active member of a women’s interfaith organization. Her grandfather had been active in the civil rights movement and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the 1960s. In my mind, this 30-year-old, millennial whipper snapper had come from a long line of liberal, progressive non-racists. Who was she to tell me that I wasn’t right for the job?

Out came, “But it’s me. And I wouldn’t be doing this alone. I’d be co-hosting with people who are different from me.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, flatly. “Right now you need to listen. You need to absorb. But the issue is not yours to facilitate.”

Our entrees arrived and we went back and forth for a while. My husband sat back, quiet, taking it all in. I was struggling to understand why my daughter wasn’t seeing this as a great idea.

When dessert arrived, Emily looked up and caught the eye of a young woman, eating alone, at the table next to ours. The woman, whom we would later learn was in her early 30s and whose family was from India, said, “Excuse me. I don’t mean to pry but I couldn’t help overhearing.”

My daughter nodded, urging her on.

She looked at me. “You seem like a really congenial woman and your heart seems to be in the right place, but if you don’t mind my saying so, I have to agree with your daughter.” Then she smiled.

At this, our eyebrows went up – her polite honesty touched us – and we invited her to join our table.

During the year prior to that evening, I had become more aware of the privilege that came along with my white skin and had been making made a concerted effort to do better. At a publishing conference just months before this dinner, I had attended a panel titled “What Writers of Color Want White Editors to Know.” It highlighted the messaging literary publications make with their mastheads and contributor lists. I had consciously decided not to publish head shots so that I wouldn’t be shining a light on race, gender or age. But that panel made me see that I needed to be more intentional by publishing those photos to illustrate diversity, which I did immediately upon my return.

A few months later, in an editorial exchange with a writing client who is Black, I made a deeply disturbing, completely inappropriate remark – meant to be ironic  – that dismissed the seriousness of Chicago shootings. The moment I hung up the phone, I realized how it horrible it sounded and immediately texted her to apologize. Her response was incredibly gracious, and a revelation.

No worries,” she wrote.  “I appreciate the fact that we give each other permission to “flub.” I can think of a sentence or two that I have written that has been in non-intentional, poor taste.”

Though I had been thinking about racism and trying to do better for a long while, I now think of my daughter’s 30th birthday as the opening ceremony of my anti-racist awakening. That night forced me to look at what I was doing with realistic eyes. I was shaken to discover that of 84 published essays across fourteen issues of my literary publication Thread, only eight were written by writers of color – a mere nine percent.

I know a lot of White people are soul searching right now. We’re reflecting hard on what we have been doing. In the two years since that dinner, with guidance from both of my daughters, I’ve attended storytelling shows not hosted in my own community. I’m reading more books written by Black writers. I’m following more Black writers, poets and leaders on social media. I’m including more essays written by Black writers in my writing workshops. I’m donating money to local organizations with anti-racist missions.

I’m grateful that many of the teaching organizations with which I am affiliated are making changes to how they do business. Story Studio Chicago is offering free spots to Black writers in their single session workshops. (There are a few spaces left for my July 13th “Eight Essential Elements of Essay”).

But it’s not enough. I can do so much more. And I continue to look for ways to be more proactively anti-racist.

The next generation is doing a heroic job of identifying and owning systemic racial injustice. They may be younger than those of us who see ourselves as open-minded or enlightened, but I’ve come to see them as our teachers.

Because it’s never too late to become a student once again.

***

Register for “Eight Essential Elements of Essay”  – my single session workshop at Story Studio Chicago on July 13th.

Read the story on my forthcoming book.

Photo of day campers at Allens Lane Art Center, 1965 in what was considered to be a successfully integrated neighborhood of Mount Airy, Philadelphia. I’m seated on the ground, second from the right. 

 

 

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