Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Unlearning Isms

Alliance of Women Against Racism Etc.
Unlearning Racism Carnegie Newsletter

Unlearning Racism
Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, 1938-1988

"...'to unlearn' is not the opposite of 'to learn.' Thus, for example, the necessity of 'unlearning racism' does not imply that racism is 'learned,' or that racist attitudes are acquired through a 'learning' process.
On the contrary, racist 'thinking,' like other forms of mystified consciousness, represents a disturbance of the learning process, a disturbance which itself is the consequence of social oppression and which in turn serves to perpetuate it." ¾ Ricky Sherover-Marcuse

I met Ricky Sherover-Marcuse in the late 1980s, when she came to BC from California to facilitate an Unlearning Racism workshop, a residential gathering of several days duration. 

A self-described "red-diaper baby" and a charismatic speaker, Sherover-Marcuse presented ideas and activities with an eye to providing people with a bundle of tools, with which they could dismantle the effects of social conditioning on themselves with the help of others, and work to interrupt and dismantle the perpetuation of oppression in organizations and in the wider flow of societies. 

In this radical view, abuse of power is not about defective individuals so much as it is about the accumulation of experiences interacting within social environments. A person is a storehouse of all of the experiences of a life, and these experiences can be understood differently, new meanings drawn from them, and new directions pursued creatively-- we can step out of line.

Local organizations formed to carry on the work in the region, an organizing group and a facilitating group, and I eventually joined the facilitating group, Alliance of Women Against Racism, Etc.

The approach combines basic peer counselling strategies with a series of ideas or thought-propositions and activities, and work is done in a variety of formats, large group, small group, pairs, and caucuses. 

The pacing is careful, whether presenting an hourlong seminar or a five day training, with the delivery of ideas followed by personal time for attention/absorption and processing, back and forth through the day or days with breaks for other sorts of things that humans enjoy— eating, playing outside, singing, resting. 

Some elements of the workshops tended to be very challenging for participants. In The Target Group excercise, the facilitator calls out different forms of oppression, and each individual must decide where to place themselves in the room in relation to that particular dynamic— whether you have been a target of racism, or whether you have not been targetted for racist mistreatment (etc). 

You can imagine how stressful this can be, and confusing for some, to step out of line and show yourself in this way. Empowering sometimes, to claim the space. Useful, always, to have a visual and tangible experience of difference in this formulaic way, coming to understand where we each fit in a broader scheme of things.

Prompted by Beth Brant, with whom i was taking a writing course, i began co-facilitating these workshops very shortly after attending my first one: it needs to be done, somebody’s got to do it, you’re here.  

I co-facilitated my very first UR workshop at Westword Women’s Summer School for Writers, UBC, and facilitated the very last one for graduate students at the School of Social Work, UNBC, in 2000. 

Since the fundamental principles can be basically understood as giving time to stories, freeing the bodymind, attending to our old stories on purpose and in company, it has been quite easy to carry forward the work through literary and writing work, encouraging voices to blossom into the world.

I was reviewing these premises recently, as Ricky presented them (links below), and realized that this is where i have found my resilience, by falling back on the ideas and the optimism of these teachings.


More information about Erica (Ricky) Sherover-Marcuse on the Unlearning Racism website,
on the Herbert Marcuse website,

top image source: Chodarr Project (p 4)

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