Our Opinion: Pillow triggers an important debate

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The term "teachable moment" is overused in response to controversies that erupt into public view, but it is appropriate to the July 10 oped column by Jacob's Pillow Director Pamela Tatge about two incidents at her venue and the response to her column. An education has been provided to a predominantly white Berkshire County as to how people of color are treated by people who would recoil at the thought that their words and behavior are in way inappropriate.

In her column, "Jacob's Pillow dismayed by racism at gala," Ms. Tatge wrote that she was approached by a woman of color at the cultural venue's season-opening gala. The woman told her that a man sitting behind her touched her haiir, which was worn in a loose halo around her head, and complained that he and his companion "were going to have a hard time seeing the stage over that hair." Later at the gala, a woman. seated at a table with the woman of color asked "What are you?" After explaining that she was bi-racial, she was subjected to a series of questions about her family and personal background that were at the least rude and thoughtless.

Ms. Tatge decided to write to The Eagle because, as she explained in the oped, "I'm asking all of us to think collectively about what we should do to address bias and racism within our midst." It was a brave decision by Ms. Tatge to in essence call out her own patrons, especially considering that the two incidents would never have become public knowledge had she not written about them. But in doing so she performed a great service and triggered a needed debate.

In his July 19 article "Tackling bias requires time, ongoing attention," The Eagle's Noah Hoffenberg reported that Ms. Tatge's column produced thousands of shares on social media and tens of thousands of views at berkshireeagle.com

Letters to the editor have been coming into The Eagle since the day after the column ran, a couple expressing skepticism about the incidents or Ms. Tatge's motives for writing about the but most chastising white people for "white entitlement" or recalling experiences similar to those the patron experienced at Jacob's Pillow.

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Many of the letters were eloquent, none more so than the one submitted by Anna Dupont of Sheffield, an 18-year-old Cameroonian-American who has lived in Berkshire County all her life. Emphasizing that she felt she had no choice in the matter, Ms. Dupont wrote that she has become a teacher of what is OK and "is not OK to say to a black person." She reported having to dodge people reaching out to touch her Afro and enduring prying questions about her bi-racial background. She has concluded that "what you can't teach out of people you have to call out of them," adding that those who won't listen should "prepare to be called out."

Letters to the editor are usually scarce in summer, but not this July because of the combination of letters responding to Ms. Tatge's column and to the tweets of President Trump telling four women of color in Congress to go back where they came from and fix their own countries (Three of the four are from the U.S., all four are U.S. citizens.) While these are dramatically different incidents it is instructive to look at them together.

The "go back where you came from" trope is a racist one applied to the Irish, Italians, Jews and now African-Americans and Hispanics. There is no disputing what it means. Many or most of the white visitors and residents called out for their behavior by people of color in letters and web posts surely consider themselves to be liberals sympathetic to the cause of minorities, at least in a general sense. But their words and actions can be interpreted as condescending and belittling and carry the taint of entitlement.

While touching hair is always out of bounds, it may be that some of those who ask impertinent questions are trying to begin a difficult conversation that will lead to a necessary education. Their questions, however clumsily phrased, may be well-intentioned. It is a lot to ask of those like Ms. Dupont who have been thrust into the role of educator to white people to also parse their questions for good or ill intent, but the questioners are not automatically entitled or, worse, racist. They may be acknowledging their own ignorance and seeking enlightenment.

Ms. Tatge observed in her oped that employees of color at Jacob's Pillow report being subjected to racist behavior on the part of patrons. It can be assumed that similar incidents take place at other cultural institutions in the Berkshires. Jacob's Pillow, with a pioneering approach to reaching across cultural and racial lines that continues today, is an ideal place to expand the educational process begun with Ms. Tatge's column. We urge not only all Berkshire cultural institutions but all schools, businesses and nonprofits to join this educational process, along with individual residents and visitors. Combating racism certainly means condemning hate speech and transparently bigoted actions. But it also means showing respect toward the minorities living in and contributing to what can be an intimidatingly white Berkshires.


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