2001-02-05 Lakeshore Press Racism speaker sees life in black and white

Racism speaker sees life in black and white
Lakeshore Press

Greg Williams has a view of racism that is like non other.

He grew up white – then black.

Williams is a dean of the Ohio State University College of Law and author of “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.”

He will be one of two keynote speakers at the first Ottawa Area Summit on Racism on Feb 13 at Hope College.

“Greg Williams gives us a poignant view of the struggle of racism in America,” said David Rhem, president of the Alliance. “I was so moved by his story of what it was like thinking he was white, then realizing he is African-American.”

The summit – plus two town meetings and a leadership conference held previously – are sponsored by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and three collaborating groups. It is part of a five-year plan to break down racial barriers in the community and promote inclusion.

About 300 people have registered for the daylong event. Participants will share their ideas and insights on one of seven teams: business, community, education, faith communities, government, health care and media.

Registration costs $15. Payment may be made at the door as long as participants call the alliance at 856-9074 early this week to indicate they will be attending.

The event also is featured at the website www.ethnicdiversity.org

The other keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Juan Andrade Jr., cofounder and president of the United State Hispanic Leadership Institute. The Chicago-based Institute organizes voter registration campaigns, publishes studies on Hispanic demographics, and develops leaders.

Williams spent the first 10 years of his life in Virgina thinking his father, a tavern owner, was Italian. When his parents’ marriage disintegrated in the mid-1950s, his mother departed and his father’s business failed because of his own drinking.

With debtors pursuing, William’ father moved sons Greg and Mike back to his hometown of Muncie, Ind. There, a striking truth became clear: They were black.

“My Dad was light-skinned and able to pass for being white, which opened certain doors,” Williams said.

But not in Muncie. As a result, a father who had made a good living as a businessman suddenly could only find low-paying word as a janitor.

Young Greg and Mike’s lives suddenly turned from privilege, opportunity and comfort to poverty, oppression and struggle.

They were taken in and raised by a poor black widow. Williams said he learned to proudly proclaim the ethnicity Muncie wouldn’t let him forget.

Alliance Executive Director Gail Harrison said she read Williams’ memoir while making arrangements for him to speak at the summit. She said the book is so powerful that initially she could not speak over the phone with him about it.

“All I could think at first was, ‘It’s amazing this person has lived to adulthood,’” Harrison said. “It’s a wonder to someone who has lived this life is not dead.”

The alliance is patterning its effort after a similar Summit on Racism in Grand Rapids. About 400 people attended that summit the first year and 700 the second year.

Organizers include Latin Americans United for Progress, the African-American Support Group, and the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony.

Harrison said collaborating groups are pleased with the number of registrations, but are still hoping for as many as 500 participants.

In Holland, 320 people attended the town meeting; in Grand Haven, 150.

Williams said he is eager to be part of the summit because of its “forward-thinking” approach to looking at racism in the community and commitment to finding ways to promote racial unity.

He said he has studied videotapes of town meetings on racism held in Holland and Grand Haven, and a half-day conference for community leaders.

“The community is aware its racial landscape is changing,” Williams said. “Issues like this occur across the country. Talking about it like this helps people grow with the change.”