We are an anthropology class at A-B Tech, intent on applying the principles of the discipline to the public discourse in our community through this forum. As anthropologists in training, we try to apply ethnographic research methods toward the common good, grounded on principles of holism, cultural relativity and reflexivity — identifying the biases and ethnocentrisms that lurk within us as we try to be as objective as possible in the study and understanding of others.
The Citizen Times recently reported on an incident at a Racial Equity Institute training at MAHEC involving a number of local groups [“Black Lives Matter Activist Arrested After Dispute at Anti-racism Training”]. In the March 29 article, reporter Sam DeGrave described an event in which a 64-year-old attendee of the training and local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement “spoke out of turn” as a symbolic protest of being silenced by a white person.
What followed was an escalation that most parties involved agree displayed aspects of the systemic, structural racism people of color experience every day in America. The woman refused to be silenced in what she felt was a perfect example of the kind of social context that requires training such as the one she was attending. She was forcibly removed from the meeting, arrested and treated disrespectfully.
She is the longtime friend of one of us in this anthropology class: When the event was related to us all, we felt the need to act. Anthropology inspires action on behalf of the marginalized. The chapters on gender, race, inequality and the other structures of power we have been tasked with unmasking this semester were brought to our classroom in real time. Gathering the data and spreading the word are our first steps.
Since the event, the organizers of the training released a statement acknowledging the social injustice and systemic racism that influenced the outcome of the confrontation. Though they cited regulations she was breaking at the time, the statement failed to acknowledge that African-Americans have long had to break regulations that were unjust if they wanted to be heard. Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag. Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem. Rosa Parks [refused to give up her seat on] the bus.
The training institute, MAHEC, the police force (which has reportedly been trained to uphold racial equity by the same institute) and everyone involved should reflect on how they will prevent such examples of racial inequity in their racial equity training and their everyday actions in the future. An anthropologist bent on studying the event might suggest embracing holism and cultural relativity in order to guide the creation of regulations that enabled and empowered diverse experiences and a plurality of voices within the context of such a training.
As a multicultural community in which progressive values of inclusion and equality should prevail, Asheville deserves public servants, professionals and citizens who treat all people equally.
We should all be more reflexive about that.
— J.R. Johnston and Anthropology 220
Editor’s note: Xpress contacted the Racial Equity Institute, Biltmore Forest’s police chief and MAHEC, and received the following responses to a summary of the letter writer’s points.
From the Racial Equity Institute’s managing director, Deena Hayes-Greene, and associate director, Suzanne Plihcik: “Much misinformation has circulated about this workshop, most by people not present. We agree that a black woman arrested at a racial equity workshop is a troubling occurrence and appreciate the opportunity to respond. Ms. [Sharon] Smith was disruptive from the outset, speaking over a black trainer explaining workshop expectations. Participants (black and white) asked her to stop. She persisted in yelling and cursing. When invited multiple times by a black MAHEC representative to step outside and talk, Ms. Smith told her to call security. Security called the police. Police asked her to leave. She wouldn’t and was arrested. This wasn’t about white people trying to silence a black woman, something we’d never allow. Two of the three trainers were black. REI’s leader is black. We are an organization that is consistently accountable to black leadership. It’s disappointing that other anti-racist advocates have not sought additional information before rushing to judgment.”
From Biltmore Forest Police Department Chief M. Chris Beddingfield: “On Friday, March 16, the Biltmore Forest Police Department responded to a disturbance call at the MAHEC facility on Hendersonville Road at 9:45 a.m. … Upon arrival, the officers requested the subject leave the premises as previously requested by the instructor and MAHEC staff. The subject refused to leave after repeated requests and stated to officers that she would have to be forcefully removed. The subject was escorted from the room and to the exterior of the building, where she was arrested. … Witness statements taken from conference participants and those at the MAHEC facility all confirmed that BFPD officers acted professionally and handled the call for service appropriately. The defendant was not disrespected in any way. Officers were respectful, courteous and asked her to leave on her own repeatedly before she was arrested. BFPD officers receive annual training on equity, sensitivity training and de-escalation techniques. Officers reacted to the subject’s behavior and utilized numerous de-escalation attempts before removing and arresting the subject.”
From MAHEC External Communications Manager Jennifer Maurer: “While the REI training session was not a MAHEC event, we are invested in the success of racial equity in our community. Many of our employees have participated in REI trainings, some serving in leadership roles with the institute. On the morning of March 16, a participant involved in the training became disruptive and was asked to leave the training session. Attempts made by numerous individuals to de-escalate the situation were unfortunately unsuccessful. Biltmore Forest police were called and after additional unsuccessful attempts to encourage the participant to leave the premises, she was arrested and removed from our campus. The REI training was then able to continue as were other trainings occurring in the building. MAHEC is committed to the good work that is going on in our community around addressing racial equity, and we remain dedicated to maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all our patients and guests.”