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Nearly 200 guests gathered at Dogtown Dance Theatre Dec. 7 for the first event of Richmond magazine's three-part learning series, The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
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Host Kelli Lemon welcomes guest to the first #UnmaskingRVA session. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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#UnmaskingRVA participants get acquainted at the start of the evening. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Enjoli Moon (center), founder and creative director of Afrikana Independent Film Festival, greets guests. Moon, along with James Parrish, co-founder of Bijou Film Center, curated a film for the #UnmaskingRVA kickoff event. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Richmond magazine Editorial Director and Associate Publisher Susan Winiecki explains the purpose of the event to press. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Richmond magazine Arts & Entertainment Editor and #UnmaskingRVA series creator Samantha Willis (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Guests dined on Southern delicacies like macaroni and cheese, baked chicken, and peach cobbler, provided by Mama J's restaurant. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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As the evening wrapped, some participants exchanged phone numbers so they could continue their conversations. (Photo by Jay Paul)
A diverse swath of Richmonders came into the inaugural #UnmaskingRVA session as strangers but left as acquaintances, with a deeper understanding of each others' perspectives on and experiences with race.
Having sold out within days of being announced, Part I of the three-part learning series, The Unmasking: Race & Reality in Richmond, kicked off the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 7, at Dogtown Dance Theatre in Manchester. Kelli Lemon, of Coffee With Strangers RVA and Radio One, emceed the event, presented by Richmond magazine with a host of community partners.
The evening began with a bit of a shock for some guests: Those who came together were split up at the door and assigned to different tables. This way, instead of talking with someone who was already familiar to them, people conversed with and learned from people they might not have ever spoken with otherwise. It worked; some group members even exchanged numbers and email addresses to meet up in the future and keep their conversations going.
Author, innovator, activist and VCU School of Business Artist-in-residence Noah Scalin shared a creative component to our series: He presented a mask outline he designed for the series, and encouraged guests to decorate them, following these directions:
Most of us wear a mask when we talk about race — we don’t want to offend, we do want to be polite. But masks are made to be donned and removed; if we reveal our true selves, we'll begin to heal our community. What’s under your mask? Be honest, be creative, be brave.
We're inviting Richmonders to share their masks on social media with our hashtag, #UnmaskingRVA. Here are a few example masks the Richmond magazine team created ahead of the event:
A few sample masks created by the Richmond magazine team. If you'd like to take part in the #UnmaskingRVA mask art project, email samanthaw [at] richmag [dot] com.
Enjoli Moon, founder/creative director of the Afrikana Independent Film Festival, and James Parrish, co-founder of the Bijou Film Center, curated a film for the event: "Video," by Randy Yang. I watched the crowd as the visual story progressed: After witnessing a white woman make condescending, prejudiced remarks to a homeless black man and capturing it on cell phone video, two young black women confront her. As the woman begs and bargains with them not to publish the video online, the question becomes clear: Is she more concerned about being perceived as a racist on video, or actually being a racist and/or perpetuating racist behaviors? One of the black girls asks what the white woman sees when she looks at her; after a few tepid responses, the woman acknowledged that she sees a "young, black girl," and by doing so, finally admits that she isn't "color blind."
No one is color blind (in the social, not physical sight, sense) – and that's okay, the film showed us. Our differences shouldn't be denied, but celebrated. The audible gasps and murmurs I heard from guests as they watched affirmed that the film served its purpose: opening our minds to difficult discussions on matters concerning race. We also viewed short clips from the New York Times' video series, “The Conversation: A Series of Short Films About Race in America,” and this one, from the Seattle Times’ “Under Our Skin” series:
After the film, three Richmonders, a white woman, white man and black woman, shared their unique perspectives on racial issues. One of them spoke about being a young, white public school teacher struggling to connect with a class of mostly black, mostly poor kids. Another talked about the time they, unthinkingly, used a racial slur as a joke, and the immediate shame they felt afterward, and still feel. Another shared how many times they've felt invisible at work, their ideas and input ignored, because of their race.
These brave people opened the door for our small-group discussions, facilitated by Danita Roundtree-Green and Anne Westrick of Coming to the Table RVA, the local chapter of a national group whose mission is "healing wounds from racism" using a four-pronged approach. With a Coming to the Table facilitator seated at each table, participants were asked to respond to one question: When and how did you first realize race was an issue?
This question spawned an hour of authentic engagement between our guests, as they shared their responses, asked each other questions and dove deep to understand one another. At my table, the conversation ranged from a Philly native's rude cultural awakening upon entering school in Amelia, to the singular challenges of being raised by parents of different races. We came, we talked, we learned, we grew.
Part II of the series is Jan. 12, dubbed "The Backstory Breakdown." We'll present panel sessions led by historians, educators and community leaders, sharing historical perspectives on race in Richmond — how, historically, race issues influenced nearly every aspect of our city from housing to politics, education, religion and beyond. Though we've already reached the maximum number of participants and registration is closed, I invite you to share your questions and comments with us; we'll use them as topics of discussion at the next event. Leave your comment below, post it on the event's Facebook page or email me: samanthaw [at] richmag [dot] com. We also encourage you to email our event director, Catherine Wolfe, to be added to the wait list for the next session: catherinew [at] richmag [dot] com.
If you attended #UnmaskingRVA Part I, thank you. We'd love your feedback: Join the conversation here.