Why It’s Important to Have an Honest Discussion About Race with Yourself
Many white people are afraid to say something because they don’t want to touch anything relating to racism- but we need to support our brothers and sisters. We need to hold them up and be loud. We need to fight with them. Don’t ask them to educate you. You educate you. - Chelsea Handler
I fully intended to share this admission during Black History Month, but something about the timing wasn’t right. After watching the events of the last five or six days unfold in our country and seeing very mixed reactions to the protest Saturday here in Owensboro, the time to share is now. And, buckle up. This isn’t going to be fun. For many of you, like me, this is going to be a painful look in the mirror and a reminder that you are just as responsible for the state of local race relations as anyone else- regardless of how “woke” you think you are.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much discussion about this year’s crop of high school seniors and all the anticipated rites of passage the virus stole from them: Senior Week, prom, graduation. When I was a senior at Daviess County High School back in 1989, we had those same rites of passage and other ones as well. One of them was called Slave Day. No. I’m not kidding. I wish I was. Yes. We had a senior event called Slave Day.
On Slave Day, seniors at Daviess County High would gather in the school lobby, where a public “auction” was held. At the auction, we were allowed to “purchase” underclassmen who would stand on a platform in the middle of the lobby and be sold to the highest bidder. Those “slaves” would then spend the entire day carrying our books to class, being forced to wear goofy costumes, essentially being dehumanized by the graduating seniors who bought them. Yes, as a senior, I bought my fair share of Panther slaves and forced them to roll out a red carpet into every classroom I entered, announce my arrival and shower me with confetti as I entered. Now, you may have giggled because that’s a very “Chad” thing to do. But participating in something called “Slave Day” is not. I can’t believe I ever took part in something so disgusting and racially insensitive. As someone who doesn’t really carry around regret, some thirty years later I can’t shake the regret of “Slave Day.”
But here’s the sad truth and why I decided to share this. It never occurred to me or my classmates that it was racially insensitive. That’s how painfully white and stupid we were. Look, I was a smart kid. A lot of my friends were smart kids. We were in AP classes, rocked out the ACT, scored 100s on our high school history tests. Sure. We learned all about slavery in Mr. Nall’s history class. We just didn’t realize that we were living in world still shaped by that history. And why would we? At DCHS, we literally had a handful of black students in the entire student body and certainly didn’t have a clue about their experiences and how they were the result of that same, shared, horrible history. And there we were, rallying in the high school lobby for a school-sanctioned slave auction. I have no clue how our black students perceived that annual event. How would I? None of us would ever have thought to ask.
Over the weekend, my friend Matt Purcell admitted on his Facebook page that “White privilege is a real thing." Yes. It is. And “Slave Day” at a local high school was ghastly, embarrassing proof of it.
And, to that, I’ll ask this. Where were the adults? Oh, yeah. That’s right. They were white too.
Like many of you, I grew up with certain relatives around me who were racists. Their actions and the prejudicial things they would say were often dismissed with excuses for their behaviors. “They’re old” or “That’s just how things were when they grew up. That’s how they were raised.” Such dismissals, for generations, have basically served as green lights for the continuation of those mindsets. If you don’t think that’s still being passed from generation to generation, you’re not paying attention.
Each of us, whether we are willing to admit it, are products of a society that once told the people who shaped us that being racist was okay or the norm. I’d like to think that we have evolved beyond it. But we haven’t and I see it often. And, yes. That means right here in this community where, let’s not forget, the last public hanging in the United States took place. I won’t go into the specific details of that case, but it was as racially charged as anything you’ll read about local history. It’s historically estimated that 20,000 people were on hand to witness that hanging. According to newspaper accounts around the country, it was a virtual circus. Reportedly, there were even vendors selling hot dogs, popcorn and drinks. The uncomfortable truth? It's entirely possible that you had relatives that flocked downtown to watch it. That’s part of our history and, unfortunately, we don’t have the power to reshape it. But we can shape our future.
As I write this, I can’t help but think about my friend Angela Oliver, who moved to Owensboro to write for the Messenger-Inquirer. Angela’s a gifted writer, a vocal and spirited advocate for social change and she has a smile that is genuine, beautiful, and infectious. Angela lives in Atlanta now because, quite frankly, we drove her out of town. Angela used to recount to me the absolutely shocking things that white people in this community would say to her. She would lament the various “micro-aggressions” she endured on a daily basis- from people you would never expect. Some of them in the public eye; some of them in local leadership positions.
When she decided to move, she wrote a scathing goodbye letter to Owensboro and posted it to social media. In it, she detailed her “years of being the first/only different in a room. Sometimes feeling like a token.” Routinely, local white people would tell Angela, after talking with her on the phone and then meeting her in person, that they “didn’t know she was black.” There, sadly and shockingly, were also people who would refuse to shake her hand when they met her in person. Of her time in Owensboro, Angela said, “It can be draining . . . to keep explaining to racists why they shouldn’t be racist.” Angela said she never experienced anything like it before she moved to Kentucky, but “Owensboro is a sunken place like nothing I’ve ever known.”
About a year ago or so, I met another vibrant African-American woman who had just moved back to Owensboro from a major American city. We clicked immediately and bonded over our shared love of New York. In a board meeting for a local non-profit, I asked her “What’s it like being back in Owensboro.” Her answer, “It’s very strange being back in a place where I’m judged not for my talents, but for the color of my skin.” Two men in that meeting, both white, responded the same way. They questioned her interpretation with claims that “It’s not like that here.” Now, I know these guys and they meant no real harm. But their response was shaped by their own “privilege.” Why are white men trying to correct a black woman about her own experience in her hometown?
Here at WBKR/WOMI, we have a fabulous receptionist named Candace. Candace, too, is African-American. I mentioned to Candace, months ago, that I was going to write this story. I asked her to share some of her own experiences as a black woman living in Owensboro. She said, “With me and my girlfriends, it’s an accepted fact that we aren’t going to get a job in this town unless we have a white friend who works somewhere.” The irony of Candace’s statement is that it’s precisely how she got her job at the radio station.
Now, I would have hired Candace in a heartbeat. She is hard-working, dependable, project-oriented, great for morale and absolutely hilarious. She is the first person any guest to our studio sees and she is a glorious welcome wagon. But my friend Debbie is how I found out about Candace. Debbie, as a matter of fact, interviewed for the same job and essentially insisted that she withdraw from consideration so Candace would get the position. But what a shame that Candace has been programmed by local circumstances and societal constructs to think she needs someone white, like Debbie (who’s an amazing ally, by the way), to be employable.
I spent the weekend watching news of protests and riots and feeling a tremendous sense of sadness for our country. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that we, as white folks, are equally responsible (maybe even more responsible) for finding it. Yes, it hurts to admit it, but all of us have dirt on our hands. We have to wash clean those parts of our upbringing and history that have shaped the racial divide. My high school class, as recently as 1989, hosted Slave Day. I also remember going with my friends to a local club here in town. It was a “membership” club back in the mid-80s. It was later relayed to me that it was once believed that you had to be white to get a membership card. I remember my reaction when I heard that. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me! That is ridiculous.” But you know what? It didn’t stop me from going. My friends either. Yes. We were appalled by it, but not enough to take a stand that would require some sort of self-sacrifice. We were young once. And white. And privileged. And stupid.
I write this today embarrassed that I couldn’t see beyond my own experience back then. But I am so thankful than I can today. Look, anyone who knows me knows that I am about as progressive as they get. Luckily, I was able to outgrow “the way I grew up” and “how it was back then.” But even I am still a work in progress. I was reminded of this a couple of months ago by my dear friend Latasha Shemwell. She doesn’t know the impact her words had on me, but here’s what she posted on her Facebook page during Black History Month.
Stop telling us you don't see color. It is not a compliment. It's an excuse for complacency. I am black, and I want you to see that, and recognize that. In order to mitigate unconscious bias you need to be able to be self-aware and you cannot do that if you insist on being "color blind". I am a black woman, I navigate the world as such, those experiences have shaped me. Be self-aware enough to acknowledge the experiences of others, especially when they are different from your own. Recognize people's experiences, recognize how they are seen by the world, recognize who people are.
I’ll admit it. I have been guilty of claiming to not see color. Truth is- I have friends from all walks of life, all colors, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, etc. I wouldn’t live my life any other way. But Latasha’s right. To claim not to see color is not a compliment. It IS an excuse for complacency. And what we have learned from the events of the last week is that we cannot be complacent. We must speak up for our brothers and sisters. Hold them up. Be loud and fight for them.
Brothers and sisters, I can’t speak for anyone else but I promise you. I am trying.