Posted October 13, 2019 in Articles
Author: Michael K. McIntyre
We were in a grocery store in Lakewood, or maybe it was the corner convenience store – it was so long ago, I’m not entirely sure -- when a black man walked in.
In Lakewood in 1969, you almost never saw black men. Or women. And never black kids.
“Mom, look, a chocolate man!” said 4-year-old me, loud enough to silence the cash registers. I meant no harm and clearly had no experience with black people, who I later learned were the people who lived “on the East Side.” I lived on the West Side, with the other white people.
The man acted as if he hadn’t heard me and made his way to the Pepsi case. My mom was mortified, and she got down to my eye level, telling me between her clenched teeth: “Not. Another. Word.”
Later, in the car, she told me that it was wrong to call that man a chocolate man because he might think I was making fun of him. She was a stickler for correct words, teaching me by then that I was a caucasian. And he was a negro, she told me. (No one said African-American back then.)
As I grew up, I heard a different n-word to refer to East Siders. It was said as casually as a four-year-old saying “chocolate man.” I remember saying it, as if it were just a slang version of the word my mother had taught me.
In high school, I had one black classmate – my first. Nice guy. Mr. Popular. I liked him a lot. I knew by then that the n-word wasn’t casual slang, but a damaging, searing insult. I didn’t use it. But I still heard it.
When I went to college, I was exposed to more diversity than I’d ever seen. But even then, when I came home, plenty of people – people I knew and people I didn’t -- had no problem saying the n-word. And, beyond the language, having the sense that they were superior simply because of the shade of their skin.
I stayed silent when they said it and that was wrong.
Today, I don’t hear that word often, and I’m not silent if I do. My wife and I have been intentional about talking to our children about race and racists they may encounter. I’m proud of the adults they have become.
Clearly, not everyone sees this as a priority. The word is still spoken and the sense of racial hierarchy is still intact. A black student in Hudson found that out Oct. 4 when she walked into a bathroom to hear students using what an investigation determined was “racially offensive language.”
I don’t know where their ignorance comes from. My ignorance as a child was born of geography and segregation – for 13 years, I only saw white. Education and exposure led to self-reflection, and the realization that even if I didn’t believe that I’d ever been a “racist,” I was filled with prejudice and implicit bias. I needed to be intentional about breaking through all that.
I learned that there are people who are racists – I still know some – but also that racism isn’t just about individual people; it’s about societal structures that have denied, and still deny, opportunities to people of color. It’s about a nation and an economy that was founded on the racist stain of slavery. And that the fallout of all of that is still evident today.
There’s a movement in Cleveland to put this all out on the table and to confront the effects of racism and move toward justice. A national summit in Cleveland Nov. 8 and 9 seeks to frame racism as a public health crisis. “400 years of Inequity: A Call to Action” – which harkens back to the arrival from Africa of the first slaves in the colonies – offers a real opportunity for racial healing in a city that needs it.
“We can look back in our history and see how hearts and minds have been changed,” said Margaret Mitchell, CEO of the YWCA Greater Cleveland, which is leading the initiative along with First Year Cleveland. “Healing and reconciliation has to be a part of what happens here.”
And to the many I know who’d say, “Let’s move on.” Who say slavery is a vestige of the past. We’ve had a black president. Everyone can achieve if they just work hard enough?
“The evidence, the data, is clear. The data is overwhelming,” said Mitchell, citing poverty and infant mortality and incarceration and joblessness in minority communities. “It’s important to memorialize the truth around 400 years of inequity, of structural systematic power over people based upon race.
The final day keynote speaker at the summit is Dr. Gail Christopher, a Glenville native who worked for years at the prestigious W.K. Kellogg Foundation on issues involving race and health. She now works to spread he Rx Racial Healing method across the country.
It’s simple, really. We talk to each other. We share our stories. We see “ourselves in the face of the other.”
It’s about “doing the work,” she told me, and “building public will and a critical mass of people committed to eliminating the idea of racial hierarchy and its consequences.”
Small healing circles in cities and on college campuses across the country are starting to tear down walls, she said.
“It’s the work we have to do as a country,” she told me. “We have to do it. We’re at that precipice now.”
Original Article: View Online