2001-02-20 Holland Sentinel Summit was just the beginning

Summit was just the beginning
Holland Sentinel

I wish there had been room in Hope College’s Dimnent Chapel for everyone in Holland to hear professor Greg Williams speak at the opening of last week’s Summit on Racism.

Williams, author of “Life on the Color Line,” was on a cross-country trip as a 10-year-old boy when he learned that his father’s mother was a black woman. In 1950’s Indiana, this meant that a “C” was placed on Williams’ school records. Overnight, he went from being a white boy in Virginia to a colored boy in Indiana.

If anyone ever had a right to be bitter and angry about the consequences of racism, it would be Williams. To look at him closely, as many of us were doing before we learned about his grandmother, you would never know that he was anything but white (his father passed as a Greek, and later, an Italian). His categorization as a person of color was almost a technicality, yet it meant that he was relegated to using the “separate but equal” facilities set aside for blacks. The “whites only” world was suddenly off-limits.

Williams, who is currently dean of the Ohio State University Law School (not exactly a position they give to bitter and angry people), tried to help those of us in attendance to understand what it was like for him to grow up in both worlds, black and white. Yet it was near the end of his speech, when he was talking about the present day, that he said the thing that I wish everyone in Holland could have heard.

He noted that after he gives a talk, people often come up to him and tell him their own stories of dealing with racism, almost as if to prove that their experiences were even worse than his. If people do this, he said, they will never help to solve the problems of racism. The barriers that separate the races will never come down if people only want to dwell on how unfairly they’ve been treated in the past.

That sounds like something a white person would say, and if it had been a white person saying it, it probably would have been rejected as naïve and simplistic. Telling minorities to “get over it” and make something of their lives isn’t exactly progressive thinking (these are my words, not Williams’) But coming from Williams, who grew up with that “C” on his records, the challenge to move beyond the point of simply validating previous experiences of injustice sounded like wisdom.

I have to confess, I have often thought the same thing, and wondered if it was simply my own prejudices speaking – a worry which was reinforced when I made what I thought was a helpful suggestion in a breakout session at the summit and was castigated for thinking in terms which were “so Anglo.” Having never lived on the other side of the color line, it’s hard for me to think in any other terms (to quote the great philosopher, Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”) It’s not my intent to use that as an excuse. I don’t deny that I often use the wrong words (I’ve probably done it in this column). I know that minorities have suffered terribly. I accept the fact that I have contributed to those injustices.

But how do we move forward from here? For every grievance the minority community makes, I can state an equal (at least in our day) and opposite grievance. Where will that get us?

Perhaps it is only someone like Williams, the white boy who discovered he was black, w ho can get us started moving in the right direction. You can read his book (and I hope you will), but to hear his challenge in person was something special. It’s only when we are willing to move beyond our grievances that we will make progress in erasing the color line.

I wish everyone could have been there.