Work for White People

by Barbara Joy Cooley

Barbara Joy Cooley

White people will have to do the heavy lifting to end institutionalized racism. Several incidents in my life have taught me that lesson. Here’s the story about one of those times.

Many years ago, when I began to serve on a board of a nonprofit organization that promoted historic preservation in a city in Ohio, I heard my fellow board members (all white people) voice concern about the fact that the vast majority of the membership and all of the directors of the organization did not include people of color. My colleagues on that board were wondering if the black community did not care about historic preservation.

Nonsense, I thought. I called my friend CD who was interested in restoring and preserving a music hall/theatre that was much like Fort Myers’ McCollum Hall, only larger. (Duke Ellington had performed in both of these places.) I knew CD because my husband and I are jazz fans, and we liked to go to a particular bar/restaurant that had excellent live jazz and delicious food. We were sometimes the only white people there. CD, a black man, was often there to assist in organizing the live music. We also like to organize live jazz events; we became good friends with CD.

In the phone call, I told CD that I was certain that the nonprofit organization would be interested in the music hall/theatre project and asked if he could come to one of our meetings to talk about it.

Well, to make a long story short, that happened, and then later CD was asked to be on the board of directors for the organization.

I knew CD would be a great addition to the board. His enthusiasm was infectious. What I did not know until years later was how much it meant to him.

He wrote to me a few years ago to say thank you for believing in him and nominating him for that board. Well of course I believed in him! He was just meant to be on that board.

Now I realize that because of institutionalized racism, he didn’t think there would be any interest in having him on a board like that. Because of institutionalized racism, he didn’t believe in himself being right for this task until I said, hey, you belong here! In his message, he said my reaching out and believing in him changed his life. I had no idea.

After his term on the board, CD went to Washington, D.C., for a fellowship at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He now lives in Texas, where he recently ran for a seat on a city council.

A little while after he sent me that message of thanks, I was sitting at Happy Hour at Traders, next to a former Zonta club member who, out of nowhere, said to me, “I am very uncomfortable around African Americans.” Well, I thought, that’s because this is Sanibel and you don’t know any black people because you have always lived in places like Sanibel, without venturing very far from home.

Immediately I realized that I have the opposite feeling; as wonderful as Sanibel is, I don’t like its lack of diversity. In fact, I’m not comfortable with that deficiency because for three decades, I lived in the middle of the city up north and I was accustomed to living near people of all colors and ethnicities.
In my experience, “familiarity breeds contempt”(1) sometimes applies to things, perhaps, but it absolutely does not apply to people. The more you get to know people, the more you learn about their humanity, and that does not breed contempt – quite the opposite.

Demolishing institutionalized racism is going to take a lot of work on the part of white people. It will take a lot of listening, a lot of hearing. It will mean a willingness to understand that white privilege is real, then a willingness to use it for good, and then a willingness to work toward the day when white privilege is not a thing anymore. It will mean a willingness to change the status quo. It means we will not go back to “normal” because “normal” was not good enough.

Think about it, fellow white people. As you go about your days, think about how you might reach out and use your white privilege for good. Think of those white demonstrators in Louisville who lined up and locked arms, putting themselves between the riot police and the black demonstrators.

Do you know of a situation where black Americans are subjected to the unacceptable, while white people are not subjected to that unacceptable? Look for it. Think about it. Work on changing it.

(1) The first recorded use of this phrase was in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee, c. 1386. In the end, Melibee no longer has this opinion about familiarity and contempt in regard to people, because his wife convinces him otherwise.

Comments (13)

  1. Oh my! What an Amazing 😉 truths. As an African American mother, I fear for the lives of my husband, son, grandsons, nephews, cousins and friends living in a world of systematic racism! Yes it will take time for change and as we know we will have a lot of resistance!!! If we can ALL come to believe that we (black and brown people) matter!!!! Thank you so very much Barbara Cooley for sharing this article!!!

  2. Thanks so much, Barbara, for an excellent article, and wonderful example of just one way we can help effect change. White America has been guilty of racism for far too long, and all white Americans have an obligation and a responsibility to end it now. We all need to look long and hard at our apathy and do everything possible to truly make ours a country of true equality.

  3. I can really relate to what you said, Barbara. I too miss the diversity of Cambridge, MA. And I too had a couple of experiences here with African Americans to whom I simply extended ordinary courtesies like holding the door for them or stopping to see if they needed help when they were standing beside the road with their car, and such everyday gestures were met with embarrassingly profuse gratitude. Another time I asked the only African American in a cast at the Florida Rep how he felt about playing an African American who had just gotten out of jail, and he couldn’t stop thanking me for simply asking that question. All most are saying is “please treat me like you would any other human being.” It breaks my heart that it has taken hundreds of years for us white people to begin to realize how stacked against black and brown people all our systems of housing, education, health, employment, to say nothing of criminal justice, are. I am hopeful that this time the tide has finally turned and won’t be easily stopped. But it will take sustained attention and effort and willingness to listen and learn on our part.

  4. For a different perspective, why not listen to Shelby Steele, a black professor from Stanford University, being interviewed by Mark Levin (podcast)

  5. Thanks, Barbara for such an insightful article that inspires hope. I especially can relate to your words: “It means we will not go back to “normal” because “normal” was not good enough.” I love that and intend to quote you as I work to change my white self and talk to others about our old normal white privilege.

  6. Marilyn Messick

    What an insightful piece! We must all follow your lead. Thanks for sharing!
    Marilyn Messick

  7. Beautifully expressed, Barbara! It troubles me that the black people I come into contact with are generally in subserviant positionsor the recipients of our “charity”.

  8. Thank you for writing and posting this Barbara. Before I moved to the US I lived in the Bahamas and was shocked when a visiting American friend said she felt ill at ease and a little scared surrounded by black people. The Bahamas is a country run mainly by black people and beautiful people at that. I did not understand how she could feel scared just because someone’s skin is black.

  9. Mark A Thompson

    Thanks again. Great, I relate too.

  10. Walter schuman

    Thank you Barbara for an article well written and well thought out and at the heart of the problem. I believe that white privilege is the original sin of America. It is so deep within us that we don’t even know where it came from except perhaps for a need to dominate. I have been working on this issue for many years and I found little incidents very similar to the one that you described. Maybe a solution to the problem is to practice original goodness.



  11. Edina Lessack

    Barb, thank you for an insightful and beautifully written article. I, too grew up in a more diverse community. Temple University’s music department was a conglomerate of races, religions and backgrounds. We were a small department at the time and “color blind” especially in concert choir. I am disappointed, as are you that our area lacks diversity.

  12. Laura DeBruce

    Bravo, Barbara! Thanks for writing and sharing your experience.

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