Shifting perspective with racial literacy

When you hear the phrase, “The GI Bill,” what comes to mind? A thank-you from the U.S. government to returning soldiers? A kindness to get young families up on their feet? The development of iconic suburban paradises? The bill, which established a myriad of benefits for World War II veterans, provided federal funding and policies to offer low-interest mortgages and build neighborhoods such as Levittown.

But, as the PBS documentary “Race – the Power of Illusion,” delves deeper into this topic in its third part, “The House We Live In,” it emphasizes how Levittown was segregated. The regulations for government-guaranteed loans were directed to white homeowners – redlining non-white neighborhoods and denying upward mobility and asset accumulation to blacks in the U.S., a foundation that continues to shake society today.

According to Linda Oppenheim, co-chair of the Princeton-based racial justice organization Not In Our Town, understanding race in the U.S. is an incredibly nuanced topic, and attaining such understanding is not only difficult but also dire. After seeing tweets Dr. Ruha Benjamin posted about the importance of racial literacy as a skill for 21st century students, Oppenheim, alongside fellow chair Larry Spruill and NIOT’s board, was inspired to collaborate to bring racial literacy to Princeton.

Partnering with the Princeton Public Library and the Princeton Garden Theatre, NIOT has planned a five-week series to help shift the perspectives of “race” for locals seeking awareness.

“Reactions come out of attitudes we all share because of the common conception of race in this society. These kinds of racial perspectives often occur in a very subtle way,” Oppenheim said. “For me, it’s my lifetime work. I have to think about it all the time; I am always learning.”

The series will be held every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 through Nov. 15, with the exception of Nov. 7 since Tuesday falls on election night. The Oct. 18 and Oct. 25 events will be lectures by Benjamin. The first is “Race Unplugged: Moving Beyond Sound Bites of Pundits, Politicians and Pop Culture,” and the second is “Reading Reality: Developing Racial Literacy for the 21st Century.”

Benjamin, an assistant professor at Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine and biotechnology; race-ethnicity and gender; biopolitics; and the sociology of knowledge. She authored “People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier,” examining the tension between innovation and equity in the context of state investment in stem cell research against the backdrop of medical experimentation on subordinate social groups.

After her lectures, Benjamin will orchestrate breakout groups to facilitate dialogue and help participants develop toolboxes of racial literacy to utilize in their daily lives in various arenas – such as work, faith or school.

“This is for students as well as for parents. This is about acting knowledgeably and sensitively. This is a skill children will need in the workplace,” Oppenheim said. “To come and hear these things openly is one thing, but to be applied in one’s life is much more difficult. We hope people can have a buddy to meet with during and after the series to continue dialogue and support. We will also have a private Facebook page for discussion and sharing.”

Following the first two lectures at the library’s 200-seat community room, the series will transition to Princeton Garden Theatre where, “Race – The Power of an Illusion” will be screened over three nights, each followed by a Benjamin-led Q&A.

The series, including the screenings, are free and open to the public. Registration is not required. For more information, visit niotprinceton.org.

“I think coming to any one of the nights will be beneficial [to participants],” Oppenheim said. “Somebody who can make the commitment to go to all five will definitely leave with a shifted perspective.”

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida