Take a look at boundaries that really are not there
Grand Haven Tribune
It makes sense from Five Mile Hill.
After attending the fourth annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism Saturday at Hope College and listening to 15 Tri-Cities residents share their thoughts in a break-out session, I had some thinking to do.
Do I headed for my favorite summit – Five Mile Hill, where a glance east on a clear day yields views of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Fruitport, Muskegon and beyond, without visible municipal boundaries. The view west is Lake Michigan, where rolling waves meet sand. There is no worry that the water is liquid and the sand is land, and no matter that the lake is aqua and the beach is beige –they embrace.
As humans, we tend to embrace boxes, boundaries and categories, preferably with a “label” attached. Such thinking can lead to divisiveness, a sense of “us” against “them” – like white and not, thin and fat, rich and poor, straight and gay, white collar and blue collar. The list goes on.
I was shocked when I researched 2000 U.S. Census reports and learned Ottawa County is 91.5 percent white. No wonder Tri-Cities residents expressed concerned Saturday that kids growing up here may experience culture shock when they head to college and the real world.
About 300 people from 20 Ottawa County area churches and organizations attended Saturday’s summit, which included keynote speakers, videos, and valuable but sometimes difficult discussion.
Gail Harrison, summit coordinator and executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said the goal is to “foster and environment where people of all ethnic backgrounds have equal opportunity and equal accesses (to live, work and play).”
Ironically, while interviewing Harrison Saturday evening, she was on her cell phone en route to Canada. We cut the interview short when she crossed an imaginary boundary: an arbitrary line drawn between “us” and “them,” this country and Canada. She had to converse with Canadian customs officials to reach her destination.
Prior to the customs cutoff, Harrison said: “We’re not going to intellectualize the subject. We’re going to do something about it. We’re all about effecting change. We’re committed. We’re not just going to sit around and talk about the issues, we’re going to do things that effect positive change.”
When asked if she thinks racism is a problem in the Tri-Cities, from almost a country away, I could hear Harrison slouch.
“I do,” she said, with resignation. “Many of us have very good intentions. We have no intent of tolerating racism, but I think often times we don’t see it because we’re white. We don’t see the negative impact on other people in our community.”
With the contact consumed by customs, I called a close friend and former co-worker, whom I’ve known since I was 17. When it comes to prejudice, racial discrimination issues, I consider her an expert. Theresa “Reesie” McClellan, a crime reporter for The Grand Rapids Press, is black. And openly gay.
“I didn’t get hit full-faced with racism until I got to West Michigan,” said McClellan, who moved here from Detroit in 1980. “I was spit on when I came here. You get used to being followed around in stores and knowing you’re being followed because you’re the only black person there.”
She grew up thinking she had to be “twice as strong, twice as smart or work twice as hard” to gain equal footing.
“Nothing is given to you,” McClellan said. “We live in a very white heterosexual world with an assumption of privilege – ‘of course I can get married.’ When you have a society built on discrimination and when you try to insert laws in the Constitution that instill discrimination, there’s something very, very wrong with that.”
McClellan sees parallels in racial and homosexual discrimination.
“They’re two different worlds, but they’re similar,” she said. “The first thing you see about me is my color, not my sexuality. It’s not about making other people feel comfortable. It’s not about asking permission to be who I am.”
Last fall, during blazing autumn colors, McClellan and I took a topdown convertible ride to Five Mile Hill. It was her first trip to the Grand Haven landmark.
She admired the maples, oaks and saplings for their majestic blend of colors. Saturday’s interview was no different.
“Discrimination is discrimination and it’s wrong,” McClellan said. “It’s not black or white. It’s not gay or straight. Its’ not so delineated. We get in trouble when we try to look at things that way. We miss out.”
McClellan said she’s pleased with the Lakeshore summit effort.
“I’m glad to hear what they’re doing on the Lakeshore. One of the good things about the summits – you’re not just looking at census figures, you’re doing some depthful thinking and making things happen. We become change agents when we’re willing to have the difficult conversations.”
If ever we’re feeling smug, white or more privileged than others, I think we need to consider a drive up Five Mile Hill on a clear sunny day (the last street to the east before Bil-Mar). Gaze over the wide expanse of people, populations and communities, and try to pick out the boundaries that supposedly make us different. They don’t exist.
The drivers in those matchbox-sized cars are simply people, not categorized by color. They’re not black, not white, not Hispanic. They’re just people. It’s a broad, inclusive perspective.
We can see as far s our bias and personal vision allows us to recognize. Then it gets cloudy. Perhaps we need a wider-angle lens to capture the moment for what it truly is. Lake Michigan waves meetings shore echo a reminder.