We Can No Longer Ignore the Issue of Racism

Over the last four and half years that I have been back on Roosevelt Island with my children, there have been a few dust-ups that have seemed, to some of us, to be grounded in those most entrenched American societal evils of racism, prejudice, and classism. The marijuana controversy, for one, and the most recent issue around the funding of the Youth Center. And yet, it has seemed to me that issues of race and gentrification rarely, if ever, are addressed in conversation with fellow parents, through the school, or in the community at large.

I grew up on the Island, a white, cisgender, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, female child of a lawyer and a stay-at-home mom who began in Island House and then bought in Rivercross. I attach all these labels because my social, economic, racial, gender, and ethnic positioning matter. I offer the description of my childhood family because it differs in some significant ways from the one in which I am raising my own children. I’m back as a single mom of three, living in an intergenerational home with my children and my parents, in that apartment in Rivercross. Given the changes in the real estate of the Island, with privatization and market rates, my family could never afford to live here if not for my parents’ opening their home. To have been priced out of an Island designed to embrace a diversity of economic strata feels disheartening at best and heartbreaking at worst.

I came home to follow my calling. I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and have served, since getting back to Roosevelt Island, in congregations north and now west of the City.

For decades now, my (mostly white) denomination has been working hard to better understand and combat racism. Last spring, we had our own dust-up as hiring practices at our central office came under scrutiny. The result: people of color in our faith led the charge toward even deeper understanding, calling on us white folks to look closely at the white-supremacist culture in which we all swim and that some of our unspoken practices continue to uphold.

We have had teach-ins on Sunday mornings, addressing the question of privilege and the systemic nature of white supremacy in America, in our communities of faith, and in our culture. We have called each other out on our hypocrisy; being honest about how we fight for, advocate for, ally with our siblings of color usually only when it is easy or suits us. ​We have talked to each other about how our privilege benefits us materially, and how our participation in the status quo of oppression in this country harms us morally. We have begun to take public stands. We are not perfect; we are still evolving in our understanding of what it means to truly be allies and to dismantle the structures that serve us and keep others oppressed.

My own awareness of racism and the interrelated issues of economic justice, gender equality, and trans rights has grown as I have worked to lead congregations on their own journeys. But it has grown even more so through the awareness that I am raising three white males, in a time and place that privileges them. Studies show that by age five, white children have internalized a sense of superiority. This is a devastating thought. But studies also show that the more we talk about race, openly and honestly, rather than trying to teach our children to be colorblind (which is, truly, something only a privileged person can be), the more likely it is that our children will grow up to be anti-racist seekers of justice. So I make it a point to talk to my children in ways I believe are age-appropriate, about privilege, racism, and the ways the system is stacked against some.

With my children, it’s easy. They are at an age when fairness is fiercely protected. But I have learned from my congregations that it gets harder as we get older. To talk about race and racism in largely white spaces, even as a white pastor, isn’t always easy. I have been accused of calling my people racist, or preaching too often on the topic, or of asking too much. But I have also watched as people have moved from a stony, “I am not racist and racism isn’t an issue anymore,” to a more nuanced understanding of the culture we actually live in. It can be done. But it takes time and it takes commitment. It takes a desire to understand your community, to understand the people in it who are crying out for understanding. It takes people showing up for the conversation, and being willing to stay in it when it is hard.

In the last nearly five years, I have been shocked at the lack of public engagement on Roosevelt Island with these same questions. Perhaps we believe that, because we live in New York City or because we live on a beautiful little oasis of an island, we somehow don’t need to pay attention to these things. I would challenge us to ask our neighbors and friends of color whether that’s true.

Whatever the reason, it has been surprising to me how little public conversation there is on this. And it has been disheartening that so much of that little public conversation consists of people of color asking us to understand something, and then us white folks making it about something other than racism and prejudice. It has surprised me, in the reactions folks have had to the dust-ups, that there doesn’t seem to be a nuanced understanding of the long-standing issues of race and class on our Island, ​issues that have been compounded by the rapid gentrification brought about, in part, by some of the original Islanders who benefited from its original vision, and extended by many transplants to the Island over the years.

We live on a divided Island. We can’t ignore that. There are divisions drawn between native Islanders and the “new folks,” between races, classes, buildings, where the kids go to school, and where they go after school. Despite the utopian origins of this Island, we have a long way to go before we are one community.

I have benefited, as has my family, from the structures in this country that privilege our white identity. I spent plenty of years not talking about these issues, believing I had somehow escaped the culture I live in. I have since learned better, but the journey does not stop. The most recent issues that have arisen on the Island have pushed me to acknowledge that I have been complicit in allowing conversation on racism, classism, and oppression on Roosevelt Island to stay at that bare minimum. In this way, I have failed the community I love dearly. And I do not want to fail it any longer. I will not be complicit in silencing our neighbors of color or our neighbors who are most deeply affected by the ongoing gentrification of the Island, and I will not be complicit by failing to gather up my fellow white people and have this conversation, even when it is hard.

So, to my friends and neighbors of color: I’m sorry it’s taken so long to bring this work home.

And, to my fellow white people: Let’s talk to each other and deepen our understanding. More importantly, let’s listen more.

Finally, to all my neighbors: This is our community. I believe we all love it. Let that love be a source of commitment as we come together to talk about all those things that have lurked below the surface. Let’s bring them to the light and make changes.

Sarah Lenzi

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