Their work started earlier this year, and sprang out of the trial of George Zimmerman for killing unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, as well as a series of local events that had been building up for years.
The group held a panel discussion last Friday at the University of Alaska Southeast called “Deconstructing Racism: Power and Privilege in Our Community.”
UAS Professor Sol Neely started by setting the scene for a short skit by local writer Christy Namee Eriksen: “Act One: “If Racism Was a Burning Kitchen.” An Asian and a Caucasian are standing in a kitchen. The kitchen is on fire.”
Twitchell: “Whoa! Is the kitchen on fire?”
MacNaughton: “Are you calling me an arsonist? I am not an arsonist.”
Twitchell: “I am literally burning up. I’m pretty sure the kitchen is ON FIRE.”
MacNaughton: “I didn’t build this house, I just live here.”
Twitchell: “Let’s leave and build a new house.”
MacNaughton: “I’m not going anywhere, this is my house.”
Twitchell is a Tlingit speaker and a professor of Alaska Native Languages at UAS. MacNaughton is an artist and social justice activist. They were joined by Neely, Alaska Native storyteller Ishmael Hope, and Northern Light United Church Pastor Phil Campbell.
Twitchell acknowledged many people prefer to avoid talking about race and racism. He said the panel’s discussion was not the beginning of the conversation, nor should it be the end.
“It’s important that this conversation occurs throughout our community on a regular basis,” he said. “So that we can become more aware of the types of things that create oppression.”
Like the Asian character in Eriksen’s play suggesting they leave the burning house and build a new one, the panelists suggested tearing down social systems that create racism. Hope said too often people of color are marginalized.
“And in fact, often get thrown into jail, targeted, not supported for success, put in the area where they are denied access to success, and to power, and to privilege, and any kind of authority,” Hope said.
He pointed to the Alaska Native dropout rate, which is often cited as an example of inherent racism in the education system. According to the National Indian Education Association, Alaska is one of 14 states where the Native American graduation rate is lower than 60 percent.
“There’s something wrong there,” Hope said.
The panelists said an incident last April during the Alaska Folk Festival sparked them to begin talking about racism locally. A group of revelers at the annual bourbon brunch, which is not officially part of Folk Festival, dressed up in Asian-themed garb. Pictures of the event were posted on social media, leading to questions about whether it was racist.
MacNaughton says she found the photos “mildly to wildly offensive.”
“Mostly focused on really sexually demeaning, stereotypical, female images of Asian women,” MacNaughton said.
She decided to speak out after playwright Eriksen was attacked on Facebook for pointing out how the party was offensive. MacNaughton said it can be difficult for white people to admit that something they have done is racist, or to speak out when they witness racism taking place.
“And I don’t mean to pick on other white people,” she said. “I have said racist things naively. I haven’t spoken up every time I’ve heard or seen something racist. Sometimes people take your breath away. Sometimes you just don’t have the words or know how to respond in the moment.”
The Reverend Phil Campbell has taught social justice classes at universities and theology schools. He says white people have work to do when it comes to talking about race.
“We’re not very skilled at understanding ourselves as ‘raced,'” he said. “And therefore, racism is someone else’s problem that we might help with, when, in fact, I would posit it is primarily, in this society, a white problem.”
Toward the end of the discussion an audience member asked the panelists if they were optimistic about the future. Twitchell said he was cautiously optimistic, noting that Alaska Natives still have higher suicide rates, and higher rates of being victims of violent crime than other races.
“But I am optimistic, because we can have these conversations and they occur on a larger level,” said Twitchell.
Sol Neely responded to the question by quoting African American philosopher and activist Cornel West, who said: “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.”
The conversation about race and racism continues Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Northern Light United Church, which has been hosting similar conversations monthly since September.