by 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.