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Guest columnist Jena Schwartz: ‘The real inconvenience is racism’



Thursday, April 15, 2021

I was glad to read a letter by District 5 resident Ana Devlin Gauthier addressing the lukewarm — at best — response from several members of the Amherst Town Council to a two-day antiracism training.

Devlin Gauthier writes, “The work around equity, inclusion, and justice is not comparable to any other work the council does or will do, it underlies all of it, informs all of it, and should be prioritized. It was mentioned in the meeting that asking councilors to attend a two-day training sent a message about the high time commitment of being on council. To be frank, statements like that send a larger message about the perceived importance of this work.”

When I read the article in the Gazette and Bulletin, “Councilors up for anti-racism training despite reservations,” I wish I could say I couldn’t believe my eyes. But sadly, the self-referential pushback and half-hearted approach to the imminent training, so long overdue as it is but thankfully coming to the fore thanks to the work of councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne and Patricia De Angelis, didn’t surprise me.

It reflects in some way the worst of Amherst. My family moved here in 1983, and I returned after a long time away in 2012. I have seen very little change over those decades in terms of the faux liberal ethos of the town in contrast to its deeper relationship to non-white as well as lower-income residents.

The very language of the article’s title is problematic. By saying that the members of Town Council — elected to serve and represent all of Amherst — are “up for” attending this training is such a disappointment. A person might be “up for” going to a movie or doing yard work.

Engaging in anti-racism work, as Gauthier so succinctly points out, needs to become woven into the very foundation of the town’s approach to all of its work. White people, and in this context particularly those who espouse liberal values, must begin to truly internalize the centrality of this need, lest the lion’s share of anti-racist work with its painstakingly slow progress and heavy emotional labor continue to fall on those who are not in fact responsible for it.

Two councilors expressing reservations about the two-day commitment used the words, “I don’t like ...” While of course everyone has a right to their opinion, it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of these statements were; they expose a lack of awareness that reveals just how badly exactly this type of training is needed.

The fact is, it really doesn’t matter what white people “like” or “don’t like” when it comes to this conversation. The only thing we should be concerned with not “liking” are the ways systemic racism has shaped and continues to impact the town of Amherst. The numbers, be they related to housing, income, poverty levels, education, or quality of life, are not hard to find — but they are often masked by Amherst’s deeply rooted and self-congratulatory self-image as inclusive and diverse.

When I read the closing quote, “This is not only giving up a Saturday, but an entire weekend,” to my kids, my 18-year-old observed that it sounded like satire. If only we could laugh.

Walking the talk is going to take more than joining a book club, attending a rally, putting a sign in front of our house, or adding anti-racism to an already long meeting agenda. While those are all valid and important, until a majority of white people, and in this instance town councilors such as George Ryan, Steve Schreiber, and Mandi Jo Hanneke, begin to realize that anti-racism work cannot successfully occur without us — and I very much include myself here — making actual sacrifices that yes, will impact our free time, our work, and our family lives, how do we expect to really move the needle toward a more equitable place to live?

This work cannot be deemed separate from everything else, because it isn’t. And it is crucial that more white people who say they are invested in this work embody that in both word and action.

The real “inconvenience” is not a two-day training that requires one to give up a weekend. The real inconvenience is racism. And the very idea of “sacrifice” is inherently supremacist and implies that white people are somehow doing this work “for” Black and brown people, a patronizing orientation.

I sure hope to see a sea change on this front over the coming months and years in Amherst and across the country, perhaps beginning with last weekend’s two-day training.

Jena Schwartz lives in District 3, Amherst.