2001-02-18 Lakeshore Press In arena of dissolving racial barriers, the light bulb moments have just begun

In arena of dissolving racial barriers, the light bulb moments have just begun
Lakeshore Press

It was a light bulb moment at the end of the a long day at the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism.

Several speakers already had called Tuesdays a “historic day” because more than 600 people had come to work on breaking down ethnic and racial barriers.

The morning’s speaker, Gregory Williams, had told how he grew up in a white Virginia family and then, after his father hit the skids, went to live with his grandmother, his black grandmother, in the projects of Muncie, Ind.

Think about a 9-year-old learning firsthand about 1950s segregated America – first from the side of privilege in Virginia, then from the side of oppression in Muncie. It’s a long and fascinating story, but here, it’s enough to know that a kind stranger took him in and provided love and support. That Williams went on to become, today, the dean of the Ohio State University College of Law. And that he has done it as a black person.

Of course, he didn’t have a choice in segregated Muncie, where his father was known. Where they added the letter “C” to his school records, just to make sure teachers didn’t make the mistake of treating him as white, which he looked. But what about his later life?

At some point during the summit discussion about racial divides, the idle question came up: Since Williams was half black and half white, couldn’t he also have chosen to live his later life as a white person? Might that not have been easier?

And then that light bulb flashed.

I realized the assumption behind the question: that life as a white person might have been easier. What a telling assumption.

Clearly Williams’ cultural heritage was black. The woman who took him in and raised him and loved him was black. And through our bleak history of race relations, any black blood at all was enough to relegate you to the back of the bus. So back then, Williams didn’t have a choice, and by the time he had a choice, he was who he was – a black man.

But that answer wasn’t as important to me right then as that assumption behind the question: that he would have had an easier time of it had he been white.

Well, duh. Clearly there should be no inherent benefit to someone choosing to live in one culture over another. There should be no inherent benefit to being born into one race or another.

As the day’s inspiring closing speaker, Juan Andrade, Jr., thundered: “I don’t just happen to be Hispanic. I am who I am by the grace of God and for no other reason, and I make no apology for that.”

If for no other reason, for non of the practical economic reasons, justice is necessary because God made us and he made us equal.

At an earlier summit meeting, I’d nodded in agreement when someone pointed out that white folks simply don’t realize the advantage they have by simply being born that way.

And still it took that light bulb moment to realize the implication of the assumption in that question, that living white might have been easier. The implication, of course, is that the warp in the system is very real.

A person should not have to choose one half of his lineage over another, even if he could, because that half might accrue him some advantage. A society is faulty if it offers social or economic benefits to one side of such a choice.

And that is what this summit is about: tackling the faults in society by getting different groups together. The summit brochure points out, “Accepting racial diversity and including people of different races into our everyday realities are two different things.”

Including others in our reality, living with others, can defeat ignorance, fear, misunderstanding, even hatred. And can help us recognize our assumptions.

At the summit, more than 600 people included others in their lives. They met in 19 groups to talk about seven subjects ranging from faith to health care to business to media to government. They set our more than three dozen strategies to break down barriers, strategies the committees will tackle during the year.

The work – and the light bulb moments – have only just begun.