Every conversation in America is a conversation about race, according to Kaye Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., a professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, and a speaker at Convening Leaders 2021 in January. “That’s because a conversation about race in America is a conversation about people,” she said. Race is not a biological concept, but rather a social construct, “that either extends or denies a person’s access to privileges and benefits. It determines whether or not you are allowed in the room where it happens.”
At Convening Leaders, Whitehead, a three-time Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, presented an 18-minute TED-style talk outlining the history of racism and white supremacy in America and a blueprint for creating change. In the second half of her session, “Race, Equity and Actionable Steps to Increase Access and Opportunities for All,” Whitehead moderated a conversation with Kirsten Olean, CAE, IOM, director of meetings, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and the 2021 chair of the PCMA Board of Directors, and Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, about how the meetings industry could contribute to racial equity. Visit Baltimore sponsored the session.
Two Nations, One Black and Enslaved, One White and Free
Any analysis of race must begin, Whitehead said, with understanding how race was socially and politically constructed in the United States before the end of the Civil War, a history that coincided with America’s colonial period and the trade system in which “approximately 40 million Africans were forcibly taken from their homes, and scattered throughout the Americas,” she said. European colonists created three races, Whitehead said: indigenous “savages,” “subhuman” Africans, and whites. Within those categories, they united white colonists, dispossessed indigenous people, and enslaved African men, women, and children for close to 250 years. “It was within this ‘plantation generation’ that we became two nations: one, Black and enslaved, and one white and free,” she said. “Race as we understand it and as we live it, is essentially about whose life matters and whose life doesn’t.”
The effects of the oppression and servitude of black people can be seen today in every facet of our lives, Whitehead said, from the mass incarceration of Black men, to voter suppression and racial profiling, and metrics like the higher numbers of public-school expulsions for Black students and the higher mortality rate for Black pregnant women. Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive for — and 39 percent who have died from — COVID-19, even though Black people make up only 13 to 14 percent of the population, she said. In 2016, the net worth of a typical white family in the U.S. was $171,000, compared to $17,150 for a typical Black family — “the ratio of white family wealth to Black family wealth is higher today than at the start of the century,” she said.
“Whiteness and white supremacy, racism and injustice, are threads woven into the fabric of America,” Whitehead said. “And unless we are willing to pull on the threads, and unravel it all, then conversations about race won’t get us to dismantling the pillars of racism. How do we solve it?” she asked. “How do we stop this ride and get off?”
‘You Must Be Honest With Yourself’
First, “you must learn what racism is and how it has evolved,” she said. “You must be honest with yourself and painfully aware of your own racism, your stereotypes, your feelings of anti-Blackness. You need to figure out where you sit with the question of race. Who are you, where did you get your ideas about race? You are unable to practice antiracism until you are honest about where you sit with this.”
Then, she added, “seek [racism] out, find it, and call it out. Support programs and organizations that are antiracist. You can’t be quietly antiracist. You can’t be timid — you have to be bold and speak up.” It means doing more than putting a sign in your yard or going to a rally — “it’s about going the entire mile,” Whitehead said. “Antiracism is an axe that we take to the roots of racism. [It’s] a choice you make every day to do what is right.”
The Industry’s Role in Antiracism
“It’s important to start with the self” when dismantling racism, Whitehead said in her conversation with Olean and Hutchinson. “But how do we engage with our cities, and our industries,” she asked, “because we don’t just exist in our homes.”
“This is a divided country — there is a lot of hatred going on,” Hutchinson said. “We have kicked the can down the road, but we really have to have these conversations if we are going to eradicate this issue.” Hutchinson shared that in Baltimore, where 63 to 64 percent of the population is African American, “we felt it was really important for us, as a travel and tourism organization, to have a very deep conversation about race, because our job is to make sure Baltimore City is a welcoming community for all people.”
Hutchinson added that Visit Baltimore worked to provide sensitivity training in diversity and inclusion for the city’s hospitality industry, including the kinds of historical realities about racism that Whitehead brought up in her presentation — and the Visit Baltimore team received similar training. “We wanted to make sure that our staff understands the historical perspective of race in America — white supremacy, systemic racism,” he said. It’s incumbent on all destinations, not just those with sizable proportions of African-American residents, “because all types of people will come to visit your destination and we need to have these broader conversations about how we create a welcoming environment for all people.”
Hutchinson echoed Whitehead’s assertion that you can’t be quietly antiracist. “We can’t just say I’m against racism and not shout it out when we see it,” he said. “The antiracist position is where all of us need to begin to get to and gather around, because that is the really important piece of it if we are going to eradicate racism in this country.”
Olean’s thinking about diversity in the industry, and specifically at PCMA, has evolved, she told Whitehead. As an active member of PCMA and a member of the board for a number of years, she has heard, in conversations about race, that “people of color didn’t necessarily feel at home in PCMA,” she said. “And my reaction to that was, well, PCMA reflects the industry at large — which was primarily true and continues to be primarily true,” she said. “But now I realize that completely misses the point. The point isn’t that PCMA membership reflects the industry, but that we need to be doing more so that the industry itself is more diverse, and that the industry itself is welcoming to people of color, so that they feel at home in the industry and, therefore, they start to migrate to membership organizations like PCMA.
“I want to be candid,” Olean continued, “about how my thinking has evolved. But what’s really fascinating to me — and [Convening Leaders speaker Torin Perez] talked about this — we say that meetings are the engine for social transformation, and we believe that that is who we are at our core as an industry. So, what better place than this industry to move the needle?”
PCMA’s members gather people together, at conferences, in our workplaces, or other professional settings, where “we’re probably surrounded by more diversity than we are in our own circles. … So, if we have the opportunity to bring people together into what is a more diverse setting than our own bubble, we have a huge opportunity to really and truly be that engine of transformation and tackle these issues.
“We’ve been committed to diversity and inclusion,” Olean added, “but we’ve never had these kinds of conversations as part of [Convening Leaders] before. How do we continue having these conversations — and elevate them? Is it enough that this is a breakout session, or should we be talking about this on the Main Stage?
“Should we be coming together as an industry, to figure out how do we solve this for us, as an industry, but then how do we use the platform that we have in order to have an even greater impact outside of our industry. We are uniquely positioned to move the needle — and we need to commit to be willing to do that.”
Convening Leaders 2021 On Demand
The “Race, Equity and Actionable Steps to Increase Access and Opportunities for All” session is available on demand to Convening Leaders registrants in the CL Library until March 15. Visit conveningleaders.org to learn how to register for this and other on-demand CL21 sessions.
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.