Confronting the sin of racism
Elinor (not her real name) is a friend of mine. I consider her to be a very beautiful woman, both inside and out. Her gentle, unassuming spirit quickly puts anyone who knows her at ease. Besides bing a deeply spiritual person, she is a brilliant scholar, earning a doctorate in the hard sciences. Holland is fortunate to have people like Elinor living here.
April 15 was a lovely Holland spring day. The tulips were beginning to bloom, and for the first time this year, temperatures hit 80 degrees. Elinor, being no fool, decided to grade papers under the canopy of the blue sky. She went to the corner of Eighth Street and College Avenue for a cup of coffee.
Sitting at one of the outdoor tables, Elinor quickly lost herself in her work. She was jarred however, from her deep concentration by the utterance of one single word “Nigger.” It was said in a sentence spoken by one of three men working a few feet away from her. In a loud voice, one of the men proclaimed to his co-laborers, “Niggers are everywhere now.” Elinor simply tried to ignore the three men who were working around the tree whose shade she was so much enjoying.
Maybe their boisterous racist remarks were for the benefit of the bronze statue on that corner, of the little boy with strong African-American features eternally saluting the U.S. flags, surrounded by white bronzed friends. Or maybe they were for the benefit of my friend Elinor. Oh, did I mention? She’s black. Elinor was not all that shocked; after all, people of color are accustomed to hearing racial slurs in our idyllic city.
We often hear hateful racial slurs in our idyllic city. We often hear hateful comments from our neighbors, from our colleagues, and yes, even from total strangers on the street who are offended by our very presence. White people can never understand the cumulative grind that racism has on a person’s psyche.
If we cannot enjoy a cup of coffee in peace, imagine what we face when we try to rent or buy a home in your neighborhood, work in your business, have our children go to your schools, visit your church, or frequent your stores? Whether via paternalistic smiles, or security guards following us, we find the implacable resolution to keep us separate and invisible.
Can the dominate culture even understand this insulting way of life? No doubt these three workers brought shame upon themselves and their city. Unfortunately, they really have no idea how much they have damaged Holland’s reputation. Unbeknownst to them, Elinor’s sister is an accomplished poet. When Elinor recounted her verbal assault, her sister, in a cathartic act, recaptured the moment in a poem titled, “Nigger’ U*S*A 2002.” Allow me to just share a few stanzas:
Can’t embrace nigger without de ills of being The only Negro in Holland Michigan White Surbania-white background. You can’t afford; to sit in Holland’s gourmet café. Two white construction workers can say “Niggers are everywhere now.” Framed into black and white motions De sting still lives Cause nigger is dirt poor and poor is ah nigger.
When this poem gets published, all will know of our city’s tolerance of racism. Our complicity of silence contaminates us all. Yet, the liberative act of voicing our resistance to racism will cause a rush for many to blame the victim. Can’t you just hear them? “There they go again, trying to manipulate an unfortunate situation to create ‘white guilt,’ just so they can get another handout.”
In spite of the stereotypes perpetuated by racist pundits, Elinor needs no handouts. She has never been on welfare or any other government assistance (even though the vast majority of people on government assistance, including welfare, in this country are white). Attending a historical black college meant she never qualified for affirmative action (even though the vast majority of people who have benefited from affirmative action have been white women).
What does Elinor want, what does the vast majority of people of color who live on the underside of Holland want? Dignity for our humanity, The right to enjoy a cup of coffee without the constant stares. When will we, as a city, move beyond this sin of racism? The answer is: When white people are as angered as we are about the prevailing racist and permeating structures. I am grateful to know that there are some white people who have adopted zero tolerance toward racism. I invite them to participate in various organizations throughout Holland, thus fulfilling their faith-based mandate for a just society.
In spite of this ugly incident, I, for one, choose to believe in Holland’s future because of the few righteous white people and the many committed people of color that I know participate in organizations such as the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, LEAP, the Tulipanes Art & Film Festival, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, CORE and Latin Americans United for Progress. But the Laborers are few.
Miguel de la Torre is a professor at Hope College. His column will appear every other Tuesday on this page.