July 11, 2014 in Features, News, On..., Op-Eds, Politics by

On: Charlie Hales and the White Man Diversity Retreat

I really tried to feel some kind of way about Charlie Hales and his white man diversity retreat. Really, I did.

After all, you’ve got Hales, OG gentrifier and street sweeper of the homeless, using $56,000 of taxpayer money to hold an all white man diversity retreat at a golf resort. And did I mention Police Chief Mike Reese is in attendance? Yes, Reese of racial profiling, hip-hop harassing, every time a Black person is shot it’s “gang-related” fame.

The fruit couldn’t hang any lower.

And yet, the best I can do is shrug and chuckle at some of the joke headlines that write themselves.

My mother has worked in education for 46 years so I’m pretty familiar with diversity training. Hales’ retreat really isn’t unusual at all. If they had gone to a retreat held by Tim Wise, it probably wouldn’t have made the news.

But it’s Hales, Reese, and a readily available metaphor for how glaringly white Portland is. It’s too difficult to resist and so easy to let distract you.

If I’ve learned anything from Mom’s stories of trying to get teachers (you know, the people who spend several hours indoctrinating your children five days a week) to buy into equity training, it’s that the real story is the industry itself.

It both fills an educational need and yet, is dependent on inequity to survive. A lot of people are eating because of the work. Literally, pervasive racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on are putting food on countless families’ plates.

The result is a number of sincere people doing insincere work through no fault of their own. It’s just how the industry was constructed. Really, it’s no different than pharmaceuticals. What’s the point of a cure when the money is in the medicine, right?

You don’t need to know quantum physics to see why, despite so many people going through this training every year, rampant inequity persists.

Hales and his staff could’ve gone to a retreat hosted by the Skittles Bag Coalition for Equality. After the weekend, they’d still go back to their regular schedules. The police would still be shooting people and using the union to get their jobs back. New, unsustainable infrastructure would still be popping up all over inner Northeast Portland, dispersing anyone who couldn’t afford the raised rent to the fringes of the city. But that’s none of my business. Hales could have a life changing, Malcolm-X-in-jail epiphany and it would only last until the next time he had to listen to some disgruntled critics. Remember, this is the same city where many believe Blacks are the “real racists” for just mentioning race.

It’s important to note that most people attending these retreats, workshops, and seminars do so because they’re required to or want to get some college credits. While some leave, moved by the edutainment, many daydream and/or complain the hours away.

But once again, this is a business. The instructors get paid either way. That you have some who spend more time talking about themselves and plugging their friends than actually educating shouldn’t be a surprise.

After you’ve seen enough of these schemes in action, it’s easy to become cynical, dismissing everyone as performance artists. That’s neither fair nor true, but what are you supposed to think when everyone is pedaling the same “Attend my event and change the world” rhetoric like it’s an industry-mandated script? What are you supposed to think when the only thing that gets accomplished is helping some people feel like they’ve done their good deed for the month? How do you see these things and not wonder if honest AND effective work is becoming a pipe dream?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not mad at the people for getting money. Getting money to feed your family and give your kids as many opportunities as possible goes a long way towards changing people’ realities. Still, I recognize what this industry is.

Whenever a societal issue is turned into a business, that issue becomes, at best, secondary. Let some of these instructors tell it though, and you’d think they were the second coming of Malcolm X (Why those aspirations are problematic is the topic of an upcoming essay). This translates into people who are unfamiliar with the scene but looking to get involved, seeking out these self-appointed leaders. After all, they’re very visible in the media, and thus, easy to find. Of course, when you have flocks of well-intentioned people immersing themselves in a contradiction, not knowing any better, it only perpetuates the problems they were seeking to solve.

Meanwhile, there are people who will give you game for free, expecting nothing in return. There is no shortage of people who would take time out of their day to tell Hales and Reese about what they could do better with diversity, as well as some other things. Who knows? Maybe they could even build relationships with these people, which is an effective yet criminally underrated method of dealing with prejudice.

But that doesn’t get anyone paid nor does it create an official alibi for the next time Hales, Reese, and company are accused of racism.

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  • Jessie Sponberg

    Bruce does it again.