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Village Square Forum Asks, 'Are White Liberals Unintentionally Slowing Racial Progress?'

Courtesy Village Square

Tallahassee organization The Village Square is known for its events based around conversations involving political and social issues – some of which are meant to take people out of their comfort zone. The title alone for its event this Thursday has already sparked some chatter locally, and Village Square director Liz Joyner expects a spirited discussion. WFSU spoke with Joyner and Funmi Ojetayo, a panelist for the event, to find out where the idea came from.

“Are white liberals unintentionally slowing racial progress?”

That’s the title of the event set for Thursday’s forum, a part of Village Square’s ongoing conversations around race.

“‘Local Color’ is a project in the Village Square, this is our third year, and our goal is to gather across race, creed and ideology, to have really dynamic but real conversations about race,” Joyner said of the event series, held several times per year.

But what exactly is the organization trying to say with the event title? To answer that, Joyner explains the genesis of the idea itself – which stems from a number of local issues.

One of our catalysts came in and had been following some of the recent controversy in town about Gamble Street,” Joyner said, referencing the joint City of Tallahassee-Blueprint 2000 project to extend FAMU Way, demolishing a small historically black neighborhood enclave.

“And we started having that conversation – and what we found, sort of surprisingly is that – we’re always trying to shake up the angry sides that see the battle of good vs. evil, this kind of thinking. But I think we found a sort of interesting space where we can ask provocative questions and change the conversation up.”

Local attorney Funmi Ojetayo will be a panelist at the upcoming talk.

“Often times, when we talk about some of these issues, including racial issues, we may get so taken up by the national conversation and of course all of the attendant emotion and rhetoric around that, and perhaps at times unfairly impose those national issues and problems into local matters, whereas it may not be warranted,” Ojetayo said.

Credit Courtesy Village Square
Attorney Funmi Ojetayo is a panelist for Village Square's 'Local Color' series

He uses the example of Tallahassee Police Department’s ongoing search for a new headquarter location. When a location was proposed for the South Side, Ojetayo recalls somewhat of an outcry.

There is relatively good – of course there are bad instances, no doubt – but there is a relatively good relationship between the police and the community in Tallahassee. And I know this because those that are actually … over the police, have required police to be engaged with the community. So, you have a police individual at community meetings – not as a police force presence, but to hear folk,” Ojetayo said.

That’s why Ojetayo was surprised to hear some of the arguments put forth about putting a police HQ away from the Southside – and who those arguments came from.

“TPD has received awards for their community policing ... Folks are coming into Tallahassee to get trained on how to do community policing. So now, to come in and say that ‘Oh, police are just all bad and don’t you see all the stuff they’re doing, the killing and whatnot – yeah we don’t want police presence in the black community.’ And mind you, the people making this argument were white liberals, not the black communities that were actually asking,” Ojetayo said. “So, let’s clarify something here, there’s the issue of over policing, but there’s also an issue of under policing.”

Though Ojetayo says he fully expects to be disagreed with on some of his points on Thursday, it’s his position that black communities want to feel safe, too, and police presence isn’t automatically a bad thing.

“We neglect to talk about under policing in black communities- insofar as black folk – we want to be safe too,” he said. “We want to live in communities where it’s safe, we can go out, we can play with our families and our kids, ride our bikes in the street.”

Ojetayo, who says he leans conservative, says he also sees inconsistencies in the way white liberals talk about religion:

“You see it also in the rhetoric of white liberals insofar as, sometimes when they castigate or make up certain caricatures of conservatives – you know, these religious people and they do this, that and the third – but if you drill down as to that demographic, we know that the most religious active demographic in this nation are black women, who are faithful attenders of church. So, when you think you’re hating on this certain group of people, it’s not the people that you’re actually hating on.”

And, he says, he has a historical basis for calling out what he sees as inconsistencies:

“You also have this sort of casual racism amongst white liberals, where they think they’re like - ‘Well, I’m down for the cause,’ but – I’ve had people, white liberals even at our events, approach me talking about, you know, I expressed that I’m a Christian … and that my faith is paramount to me, to who I am as my identity … and somebody responded and said ‘’but Christianity, the way it’s treated black folk,’ and this that and the third – honestly, it comes from a place of ignorance … Because it was Christianity that sustained our black forbearers in the fields, during slavery,” Ojetayo said.

Ojetayo welcomes disagreement on Thursday, he says Village Square only asks that disagreement be productive in nature.

“We welcome disagreement, the issue is how to disagree well – without being disagreeable,” he said last week.

Joyner feels the same way – and she hopes that the event will draw people of all types.

“You would think that getting people to respect and tolerate each other at a time like this is by far the hardest thing. Like, what in the world do you do right? Its actually the easiest part of what we do. That hardest part is, getting that diverse group of people into a room together. Because we’re not sharing spaces with each other anymore,” Joyner said.

The free event will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. this Thursday at the Junction at Monroe.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.