Today, I attended the Stand Against Racism Day of Action event sponsored by the YWCA of Kankakee County, IL. This was the fifth such event I have attended since returning to my hometown five years ago. At this event we viewed a TED Talk (about 18 minutes) by Verna Myers a diversity trainer and had an open conversation reflecting on what we heard in her talk.
To recap, here are Verna Myers three major points were:
- Uncover your own biases. Who is your default for goodness? for Evil? Who do you automatically trust? Who do you fear?
- Move toward young black men and not away from them. Don’t just listen to the stories we make up for ourselves before we actually know who they are.
- When we see/hear something (biased/racist) we have to have the courage to say something.
It was the last point that jogged this story from my memory and that I shared briefly with the diverse group of about 60 in attendance. Hear is the non-abridged version: About 20 years ago, Teri (my spouse of 25 yrs.) and I took my parents for a day visit to Chicago to visit the Mag Mile and to ascend Hancock Tower. Mom & Dad had never been to downtown Chicago even though they lived just 60 miles south of the Loop. They were fans of Chicago sports teams and we watched Chicago TV because the antenna brought them in clearly and we had no local TV stations. But, they had never ventured into the big city as adults. Why? Fear. Yes, they feared Chicago. Now I have to admit being a small town boy myself, venturing to large cities is a bit daunting with traffic and transit and all the skyscrapers that make a flat-lander lose their direction sense. In Mom and Dad’s case, the fear was more than just bumper to bumper traffic. Dad had been a truck driver after-all. The fear was more profoundly about their chances of getting mugged or murdered by a person of color.
And so as we drove through the South side of Chicago, my mother became increasingly tense in the back seat. Wondering why we had to drive through those “n—– filled neighborhoods.” For context, let me say that politically-incorrect language was more commonplace in our home than not. My parents were not supporters of the Civil Rights Movement but were not anti-Civil Rights either. They had both good and bad experiences with people of color in their young lives. Back to the story, I had a choice in that moment somewhere south of Englewood. I could just let it go, chalk it up to her generation, give her the benefit of the doubt as an under educated white person, or I could speak. I chose to speak and to ask my mom to refrain from using derogatory names for people she didn’t even know. It was tense and quiet for a few miles. And we enjoyed our trip to Chicago, even the 95th floor observatory.
What happened in that moment had a huge impact later. As my parents listened to the perspectives I was gaining through education and peer interaction, they softened their language and broadened their viewpoints. They were not “cured” of their own prejudice and neither am I. But more importantly they came to understand that we as parents of their grandchildren were not going to tolerate intolerance in language or action as example for our children. And, it worked. Our boys only learned derogatory names from school children and a few extended family, but not from their grandparents nor their parents. I think our choice to speak had a ripple effect on other family members as well. Our children did not grow up with ill-informed biases about people who have a different amount of melanin in their skin cells and when they encounter bigotry and ignorance they recognize it immediately. They are the most inclusive, non-judgmental people I know.
To be fair, I believe Mom and Dad grew in their understanding of racism over the past 20 years before their deaths eight weeks apart a year ago. I believe they had an expanded perspective on the human race and were supportive of my work in anti-racism organizing and awareness. For many of us who are white this all begins in our own homes with our own families. And may carry over to the little league ball diamond, the football field, the school concert, the office break room, the block party and yes even church on Sunday.
Have the courage to speak when it is time to speak and to refrain from repeating stereotypes. Do it with kindness and gentleness. Speak the truth. And, perhaps we may just eliminate the evil of racism from our midst.