As most of you know, I was the State Representative from the 91st District for a couple of terms. It was such a fascinating and unique experience I wrote a book about it, which is for sale out in the lobby. Mostly, though, that is not what I will be talking about today.
Today I will be sticking with what you are studying this month, diversity. It is such a lovely-sounding word; it brings up sweet thoughts of that United Nation picture of children of all different shades and ethnicities holding hands in a circle around the earth. Or it reminds me of a childhood song my nephew used to sing. I’ll spare you my singing, but here are the words: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Black and yellow, green and white, they are precious in his site. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
So, I asked myself, if this topic brings such inspiring and beautiful thoughts to my mind, why is it so difficult for me to talk about?
I think it is because if we take off our rose-colored glasses and look at our world in the cold, hard, light of day, the truth is that we have very little diversity – where I live in Muskegon County, here in Ottawa County and probably in our entire country. To be clear, we have people of many different races and ethnicities in our country. But we are diverse in a segregated sort of way. Legal segregation is no longer the law of our land, thankfully. But we are immersed in de facto segregation.
So it is not diversity that is difficult to discuss; it is the lack of diversity: why is it so hard to achieve and what are the results of failing to achieve it?
As difficult as this topic is for me, though, I think it is time to bring this lack of diversity in our world out of the darkness, into the light, so we can develop deeper understandings surrounding it. This can bring about a discussion that is not necessarily pretty, nor even inspiring. And it occurred to me that maybe we shouldn’t even be talking about it in church. But it needs to be talked about to heal it, and if we don’t discuss here, where? Because one thing we know for sure, we can’t make things better if we sweep them under the rug. Ignoring the problem has led to mass incarcerations and the death of many innocent people. That is the dark side of diversity that I want to tackle today.
That was what was discussed here last week by Alfredo Hernandez. He talked about our unconscious bias, the things we never wanted to learn in the first place. That if we continue to be unaware of them, we cannot overcome them.
So it is our job not to run away from our biases and prejudices, but to uncover them so we can heal them.
I’d like to start with discussing why I feel compelled to tackle this topic. As a white woman, I feel that in some ways it is kind of condescending of me to discuss this topic. But on the other hand, I think that perhaps it is past time for us white people to talk with one another about our biases, the damage they do and how we can overcome them.
I think this interest possibly began with a book I read in my teen years, Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin, published in 1961, about his experiences as a white guy traveling in the Jim Crow south disguised as a black guy, which outlined the terrors of living in this world as a black person. It was eye-opening to say the least. He was treated horribly, just by changing his skin color. This, I believe, led me to a lifetime of inquiry about the race issue.
Most recently, though, there were two events that impacted me profoundly. The first was the death of Trayvon Martin. He was a light-hearted young man, talking to his friend on the phone, teasing and laughing, about to watch a sporting event on TV, just like young people all across our country, when he was shot dead on his way home from picking up some snacks. I just could not get that image out of my head of his dead, lifeless body lying there on that grass. It made things all the worse when people put HIM on trial, rather than the man who killed him.
The second incident was a movie I saw entitled Fruitvale Station, based on a true story about Oscar Grant, a young black man. The movie successfully invited us into Oscar’s life and made us fall in love with him. He was a good friend, great dad, beloved by his family. So it hurt intensely, when, at the end of the movie, on his way home from a festive evening with his friends, not doing anything wrong, he was shot dead by a white police officer. When the movie ended, the entire audience sat in stunned silence. I swore to myself I would not just watch that movie then go on with my life as though I was not impacted by it.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, we know, his killer walked free. In the case of Oscar Grant, the police officer served five months.
Our speaker last week taught us so much about our unconscious biases, and how, if we are unaware of them, they cause us to make ugly choices, without us even realizing it. He was so well informed and so eloquent, I initially wondered what I could ever add to what he said. So I decided to talk about personal experiences, both my own and others’.
The first person I asked was my daughter if she had any thoughts about what I should say. She is impacted because she is married to a black man and as a result, half of her family is now black. Her answer was classic Robin, brief and to the point. “Tell people to stop pretending racism is over just because we have a black president.”
Initially this surprised me, but when I thought about it awhile I understood. Just like if you share your deepest heartfelt pain with someone and they brush it off – “Oh, quit being overly sensitive.” Or “Just grow up.” Or “So and so has it so much worse than you. Quit feeling sorry for yourself.” Those comments make your hurt even worse. Racism is here and it hurts and pretending it is not so only makes this worse.
Our struggle is to overcome our own racism, not to deny its existence.
Let me give you an example of overcoming a bias from my own life.
Several years ago I took a class called The Institute of Healing Racism, which, by the way, is still being offered at Muskegon Community College. It was a six week course, diverse people, in which we saw films and had some pretty deep discussions. One week a man named Andrew shared a personal experience with us. He told us that every single solitary time he walked past a white woman at work, she looked down and at the floor. He was very eloquent about how deeply this hurt him. His story touched me profoundly. I thought to myself, “Holy crap, I hope I don’t do that.”
Later that week I was getting out of my car at Blimpies in Norton Shores, on the very busy Henry St, in broad daylight, when I noticed a black man getting out of his car next to mine. I am sorry to report that I realized I was filled with fear. There was absolutely NOTHING to be afraid of, but yet, I was filled with fear. Fortunately, because I was in the process of getting my consciousness raised, I also realized this was totally ridiculous, not based on anything in reality, so when I got out of my car, I looked at him, smiled, and we spoke to one another. If I hadn’t just heard Andrew’s story, though, I might have been just another white woman avoiding eye contact by looking at the ground.
I would like to share one more personal experience I had at the Institute of Healing Racism. We were discussing our neighborhoods. After awhile it became clear that the black members of our group were taught never ever, under any circumstances to set foot in a white neighborhood. We were taught to never go into a black neighborhood. It is not surprising we are afraid of one another – we learned it early and we learned it well. My initial thought was that crime rates in our neighborhood aren’t high. A black person would have nothing to fear. But then I realized that if a crime was committed while they happened to be in my neighborhood, they would be very likely to be found guilty of it, whether they had anything to do with it or not. So their parents were smart to teach them that. As for me, I spend a great deal of time in Muskegon Heights, knocked doors in all those neighborhoods while I was running for office. The idea that it is a “bad” neighborhood is ridiculous. It is a “good” neighborhood, with lots of really cool people there – really nothing to fear. Our fear of minority neighborhoods is another one of those hidden biases.
And, just a little background about my son-in-law, for the purpose of breaking down those old and useless stereotypes we all have a tendency to carry around with us. His family of origin is almost exactly like our family. His parents have been happily married for many years, both of them worked their whole lives. His brother is happily married with two beautiful children, both parents have good jobs. The same is true for all of his cousins and aunts and uncles. His family is smart, educated and middle class. It is a family that thrived due to equal opportunities. When I told my son-in-law Phil’s dad Carl how much we appreciate Phil because he is so nice to our daughter, he said, “He better be.” Now that is the kind of family you want your child to marry into!
And that is why I think these young black men being killed are suddenly so personal to me. The next time it could be Phil’s nephew Andrew who makes some small mistake and ends up dead. It could be my friend Trill’s grandson. Maybe someday it could be my own grandchild. This is no longer about some anonymous people out there. It is about people I know and love.
So the next person I talked with is my friend Debra. Debra is a web site designer. If you’d like to see a sample of her work, you can check out the new and fantastic Muskegon County Democratic Party web site, which she designed and implemented for us. Muskegondemocrats.org – beautiful with great pictures, good information, moving parts and all.
Once again, the thought I received from her was simple but profound. “Tell people we live in two different worlds.”
Once again, when I thought about it, I understood. Even when we live side by side, white people and people of color, our experiences are completely different. As a result, we have developed different language systems, different ways of worshiping, different cultures, even when we live in the same city. Sometimes, as a result of living in two different words, we as white people, because we are in the majority, have a tendency to think our way is the “right” way ad their way is the “wrong” way. And people of color should strive to be more like us. That is part of our unconscious bias. It is insulting and something we need to become more aware of so we can grow past that.
The differences in our lives, I believe, are particularly difficult and damaging when it comes to our justice system. We as white people tend to look at police officers as people who are here to help us. We are not afraid of them – unless maybe we are speeding – but generally it has never occurred to any of us to be afraid of the police.
But every black person I know is afraid of the police – no matter their education level, their income level, their success level, or how peaceful and law-abiding they are, they understand that when the police are around, they are not safe.
It has been highly documented that at every turn, people of color are treated more harshly by our criminal justice system. They are more likely to be treated with disrespect and called names, more likely to be incarcerated, longer incarceration – for the same crime committed. And they are more likely to be found guilty whether they committed the crime or not. That is part of our huge problem with mass incarceration – far, far higher by the way, than any other country in the world.
I recently read a book by Lisa Bloom, author and attorney, entitled Suspicion Nation, which I highly recommend. One of the many excellent points she made was an uncomfortable truth: mass murders, serial killings, assassinations, organized crime killings, mothers killing their own children, lynchings – All of these crimes are overwhelmingly committed by white people. Yet it is black men we fear. There is no evidence anywhere they are the ones to fear, yet we do – that ugly and false stereotype persists after all these years. This is what is causing innocent, unarmed young men – such as Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin – to die.
And every time another unarmed, innocent black man is killed by a police officer, there is a predictable pattern that has emerged: smear the victim quickly so the police officers can avoid responsibility. And the latent racism that lies within many of us accepts those excuses in a way we would never do if it was our friend, or neighbor or cousin that was shot dead for moving their hands in the wrong direction. If we are ever to stop this, each one of us must get clear, unbiased information then stand up to the thinking that causes the victim to be made guilty. Demonizing victims is no way to the pathway of justice for all.
I want to be clear I support our police, believe they need good working conditions, good pay for their work. I appreciate their courage in protecting us. But at the same time we somehow need to acknowledge that we have a problem. Because if we cannot even admit there is a problem, how in the world will we ever find a solution?
So what do we do to make this situation better? How do we do our part? Here are some suggestions: We can do it by raising our own awareness, read, study, and deepen our understandings. Then stand up and speak out wherever we see injustice. Try to integrate when we can. We can also vote for candidates that will produce public policy that protects ALL of our citizens, public policy that assures fairness so all of our citizens have access to the opportunities that will create success
We have overcome so much already. When I was born, people of color could be legally barred from entering establishments. Students could be barred from entering school simply for being the wrong color. They could be legally lynched, with the killers never being held accountable. In many parts of the country they could not vote or use public bathrooms. We all know the horrors. But we also know that working together we have overcome so much already.
This country had the courage and tenacity to overcome the horrors of the past. Clearly, though we are not to the finish line of equality for all; we have a way to go to create a world of equal opportunity for all. But the courage and tenacity? We still have it. So there is no doubt in my mind. We can overcome. We can live in a country with safety, equality, fairness and opportunity for all.