Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lenten Series #14: Racism - Do We Still Need To Talk About Race?

When I was on call this past weekend, I received a call from our security office saying that someone had just reported a “hate crime’. I quickly put my shoes and coat tomeet the officer and the student.  My heart was beaten fast and thoughts running a mile a minute. I had flashbacks from the many rallies I attended during my youth and college division hay-days within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. 

“NAACP… you gotta fight if you wanna be free! You have to give it all you got! You’ve got to show them what it’s all about!” (that was our chant!)

I arrived to our student center where I met the officer. We finally sat with the student. I looked deep into her eyes and saw pain even before she poured her heart out with details.  So, I prepared myself, so that I could fully support her not just as an administrator, but a brother of color. With tears in her eyes and disbelief/hurt in her voice she told me the story.  The student was campaigning for a position within student government, and had spent the day postering. She was walking to her dorm and saw two of her campaign poster that included pictures of her, vandalized with the phrase “Wet Back, Go Back!”  (wetback is a derogatory, slang term for illegal Mexican aliens in the United States,-  wiki). She could not even say the phrase because just thinking about it and all the mental images associated with it, brought a steady flow of tears.

This is a painful statement for any person of color (the “Go Back” part), but really it hits a nerve to our Latino and Mexican sisters and brothers because of the personal nature of “wetback”. To be honest, black people are guilty of being as ignorant and using similar phrases when talking about latinos. I have heard it said by friends and family members, maybe not in those words, but indeed in that tone. “They taking our jobs” or  “go back where they belong” or “they all look alike and sound alike” etc.  Forgetting that this land belongs to our Native American brothers and sisters and we all just stealing from them, whether we were shipped here or not!

A few weeks prior, a group of students in a scholarship called Posse (geared towards promising students from disadvantaged urban backgrounds), had a retreat, where they invited some fellow students, as well as, faculty and staff. I happened to had been invited by a student, but I had already invited myself and talked to my VP because the topic was very interesting to me especially being in the middle of Iowa. The topic was simply, “Do We Still Need To Talk About Race? “   Yeah, you guessed right, simple it was not! The weekend was drainful, stressful, yet liberating and exciting because we talked about race at Grinnell with students and fellow administrators and faculty members.  I left that weekend hoping that this would be the start of transformative conversations and dialogues around race and difference. This can’t be a one time thing especially since the study body changes every year and we are bound to allow, racist, homophobic, and/or sexist individuals into the community, not necessarily because they have chosen these attributes but because of the cultures and experiences they are coming to us from. And so now, through this “hate crime” we find ourselves being tested!  Weeks after a wonderful weekend, the work has begun!

Our VP of Diversity, who happens to be Latino, told those in attendance at the Latino student group meeting on yesterday that it is okay to be upset and to be angry but make sure to find ways to be sure that your voice is heard and your story is told and not forgotten.

At the retreat, I learned the stories of many of our students of color, and so many echoed each other. I learned from many of my students of color that their experience at Grinnell has been a painful journey; A journey where their voices had been silenced in the classroom and within the community.  They don’t have many staff and/or faculty of color in order to have shared experience with college officials.  In the classroom, they must adjust to the way the majority learns and also what the majority learns. They talked about the looks, the stares, the comments about “urban life” and the blatant “tell us of your people” comments in classes and in social settings. At the retreat, as we shared with each other, I could hear the pain in the voices, I saw the hurt in their eyes, and yet they continue to press on knowing that they are here for an education and that racism still exists in America.  So when this racial incident occurred, it was not new; instead it had become more personal, and that is why it hurt even more.

Therefore, after going through the retreat and then about a month later having this hate blatantly shown on this campus. I can answer without a shadow of doubt in my mind, that we must still talk about race! “Why?” You may still ask,”Doesn’t race continue to divide?” Well, if we ignore race, then the strength that victim’s garner from these types of incidents will be ignored. Our stories will be ignored, just like our history! I want you to tell my story! My whole life story, which includes me being a black male raised in Baltimore city by a single black mom! Tell my story fully! The names I was called, the looks I was given, the doubt that was bestowed upon me by those who said I would not make it past my 21st birthday because I am a black male living in a white world.  

I could say more, and may decide to revisit this at a later time, but I want it to be clear that racism still exists! However, it will not stop me from telling my story, the story of my fellow sisters and brothers, the stories of our ancestors, the stories of America!

Maybe I will use a later blog to share what the school has done to address this issue. We are on top of it and I believe it is being handled in a promising way.

Peace, Love, and Prosperity,

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