"Talking Whiteness on Central Street" near Hartrey Avenue. RoundTable photo

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Because they thought the marches, rallies and demonstrations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery left little visible impression on the shops and businesses in North Evanston, Lydia Collins, Blaire Frett and Ilana Marder-Eppstein – friends since their days at Evanston Township High School – decided to bring conversations about race to their home turf.

“I was hearing a lot about community cleanups happening on the west and south sides of Chicago and was noticing that in my own local business district in north Evanston there weren’t any lootings or visible damage, so I got to thinking, ‘What would a community cleanup look like in our own neighborhood?’” Ms. Collins told the RoundTable.

“We thought of turning the lens inward – rather than talking about people of color, we would talk about whiteness,” she said.

Ms. Frett said, “We thought that, with the pandemic of COVID, people would be less reluctant to come and chat.” Further, she said, they thought it was important to be present “on Central Street, [where] there was no visible sign of support for these [devastated] communities – a pretty stark contrast to what other neighborhoods and communities are facing right now.”

Ms. Marder-Eppstein said she, Ms. Collins and Ms. Frett “have a history” of organizing events and were able to pull this one together in about five days. But it was growing up where they did and as they did that shaped their views of Evanston.

“The three of us grew up in North Evanston and collectively went to Lincolnwood, King Lab, Bessie Rhodes, Kingsley and Haven,” Ms. Collins wrote on social media. “From a very young age, we grew up in a system that, while it is diverse, remains largely racially segregated and inequitable. … We have by and large benefited from our whiteness in Evanston, specifically North Evanston.”

On June 6, in the heart of the day and in the heart of the Central/Green Bay shopping district, this ad-hoc group set up stations along Central Street that displayed posters about historic racism in Evanston. Young people who grew up in North Evanston were at each station, eager to engage in conversations. All the participants wore masks and maintained proper social distancing with tables and tape markers.

“We aim to shine a light on the role of whiteness in upholding and maintaining racism,” the group wrote in announcing their intentions. “We also recognize this discussion takes place within the greater context of a global pandemic which disproportionately kills the black community. We must continually educate ourselves by listening to black voices, share our generational wealth and engage in difficult dialogue on anti-black racism.”

In their stations along Central Street, 20-25 young adults engaged more than 100 passersby in conversations about race in Evanston. The young people had spent the previous night role-playing to try to elicit thoughtful answers rather than defensive responses.

“As we were building the vocabulary [for the conversations] we were feeling more comfortable … so we could bring people into the conversations and make them more comfortable,” Ms. Marder-Eppstein said.

Posters at each station and at other places along Central Street carried information about how to help, how to have a dinner-table conversation about race (see sidebar) and ways to contribute.

Suggestions for further reading included former Evanstonian Mary Barr’s book “Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston” and RoundTable Editor Larry Gavin’s story “Developing a Segregated Town: 1900-1960,” published in the RoundTable’s fall magazine and found here.

The three did not know what to expect. “We were going to do Saturday as a trial run,” Ms. Frett said. “We weren’t exactly sure how people would react.” But they said they were happy that scores of people stopped to talk with them.

Ms. Collins, Ms. Marder-Eppstein and Ms. Frett all said they believed the conversations were “comfortable.”

“There was a range of different types of engagement throughout the day,” Ms. Marder-Eppstein said. “Between 100 and 200 people came and engaged with our posters and had conversations with our facilitators.”

Part of attaining that comfort level for the passerby was making themselves feel comfortable with new language about race. “We were raised with language about racism, not with terms like white supremacy and white fragility. A lot of us did not have experience with this language,” Ms. Frett said.

Ms. Collins added, “We recognized that, as white kids who grew up in this neighborhood, we can bring people comfortably into these conversations, because we’re not outsiders and can speak through our own experiences.”

Ms. Marder-Eppstein said, “There were definitely a lot of learning opportunities for people. … A lot of people reflected on the questions, and I found it surprising that a lot of people hadn’t heard of the history of redlining or the more structural racist policies that had been in Evanston and have this ripple effect on today.”

She added, “It can be really easy to congratulate our work without actually really digging in and questioning, ‘How we are still complicit in structural racism and white supremacy?’”

The three organizers are still contemplating their next step.

Ms. Frett said as they were planning the event they looked at it as “sort of a trial-run.” Now they have some questions and challenges.

“People have asked whether there would be another event,” she said. “It is very important to keep this hyper-local.”

Ms. Collins said, “While Evanston is diverse, we have a long way to go in terms of housing inequality, education disparities, and racial residential segregation, to name a few. … But if we look inwards, the answers are here, in Evanston. If white people in Evanston can become comfortable having these conversations about race, whiteness and anti-black racism, and commit to being active allies, we can be part of the solution in creating a country of justice. We can be seen as an example for other communities to follow.”

The model they created could be adapted to other communities.

One question, Ms. Marder-Eppstein said, is “How do you accept the affirmation from people that the work is valuable and also challenge people?”

Ms. Frett said, “There’s still a lot more to be done.”

Conversations About Race

Ilana Marder-Eppstein, Blaire Frett and Lydia Collins, leaders of the group that presented “Talking Whiteness in North Evanston” on June 6, offered 10 questions as topics for dinner-table conversations about race “to foster deeper reflection about race and to see ourselves as part of the solution.” They also provided tips from the Evanston Township High School organization Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR).

 Questions for conversations:

1. When did you first learn about whiteness and racism?

2. How have you benefitted from being white in North Evanston?

3. What factors contributed to your decision to live in North Evanston? How are these factors connected to race?

4. What do you love about your school? Does everyone get the same opportunity to experience this? Do racial groups intermingle often? What does the cafeteria look like?

5. North Evanston was 99.86% white in 1960 and is 92.81% white in 2020. Why do you think it is still so predominantly white?

6. Evanston was 20% Black in 2010 and is 16% Black in 2020. Why do you think the Black population in Evanston is declining?

7. Do you think there is an anti-Black racism problem in Evanston?

8. What does it mean to have a diverse community? Is Evanston diverse?

9. What do you think are effective ways to combat anti-Black racism in North Evanston? Do you think some political opinions on the topic are too far-reached, such as reparations, and why?

10. Does your family talk about race at the dinner table? What does it feel like to read these questions?

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SOAR GUIDELINES FOR TALKING ABOUT RACE

  • Speak your truth
  • Focus on personal, local, and immediate
  • Accept and expect non-closure
  • Embrace discomfort