Don Campbell / HP staff
Trish Adams, left, and Dana Humes, right, join “Tiger Moms” as they serve the Benton Harbor High School varsity football team a pre-game meal of chicken, pasta, garlic bread, fruit, and dessert Friday, October 9, 2015, at Benton Harbor High School.


Waking Up to White Privilege, Making White-to-Black Eye Contact, and Wondering How to Respond to a Racist Comment

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. – The story of coach Elliot Uzelac, the black players and the white “Tiger Moms” may have made for the most gripping moments of the late fall Courageous Conversation. (See accompanying story headlined “White Saviors—or Just Well-Meaning?”) But the evening offered plenty of other glimpses into the balancing act required to walk the racial divide in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph area, a hyper-segregated community split both symbolically and in reality by a river.

Racism is a subject loaded with nuance and interpretation, characteristics that were evident as participants talked and pondered.

(Note: All of the names used in this story are not the real names of the participants, in order to preserve the confidentiality of their comments that was promised at the outset of the discussions.)


Here’s a Sampling from the Evening:

REVELATIONS: Valerie, who is black, told Jill and Jerry, who are white, that she left the previous Courageous Conversation impressed by their comments on white privilege, “where you were at one point, then with exposure to the literature and some deeper thought, you kind of came out on a different perspective.”

Jerry said he had ordered the 1961 book “Black Like Me” and was reading it. “Boy, the Deep South in the ‘50s!” he exclaimed, without elaborating. “I was thinking today (a non-holiday Monday), driving down Colfax, I see three young black men of school or working age and I wondered, ‘Is that part of not being able to get what you want?’ Who knows the answer? … I continue to understand the white privilege and how you overcome that.”

Valerie said she picked up the book “Waking Up White” and found “fascinating insights into kind of like internal processes and revelations about what it means to be white.”

Jill, holding up the book “White Fragility,” said she was thinking she should give it to a few people, a comment that brought laughs. ”I wouldn’t want to give it to somebody and say, ‘You’re not aware,’ but it’s so enlightening. So how do you give it to somebody and say, ‘I want you just to be enlightened. I’m not making a judgment about what you’re doing, right or wrong. But here, Merry Christmas, just be enlightened.’

“I wouldn’t want to give it to somebody and say, ‘You’re not aware,’ but it’s so enlightening. So how do you give it to somebody and say, ‘I want you just to be enlightened.”

“And maybe because it’s the point I’m at right now,” Jill continued, “but I think I’m getting past some of the guilt about it, but I’m open to it, more so than I ever have been, or I guess I’m more aware of it. Because I think I’ve always been open. But the depth of my openness is what I’m finding out.”

Jill said the people to whom she would like to give the book “are people who’ve never said a racist word to me, or never shown me (racism) in any way, but it gets to that ripple effect we talked about. I can’t worry about the tsunamis at the end of this. My goal is to just ripple this out to the next layer of people around me, and then that and that and that. I don’t want to get into a huge philosophical discussion. I don’t feel I’m capable at this point.”

MAKING EYE CONTACT: A few white participants of this Courageous Conversation mentioned how their involvement with Community Grand Rounds had made them more sensitive to looking black people in the eye rather than essentially not “seeing” them.

Margie wondered if she was reading too much into a moment at a grocery store. A young black man was bagging her groceries, “and it was like no eye contact, and then at one point he looked up, and I said ‘Hi’… and it seemed like his whole face changed, like ‘You’re talking to me?! You’re being nice to me?!’ It broke my heart.”

Beth said she had been at an event recently where a black woman was not looking at anyone. Beth figured that the woman was doing this so she would not feel shunned by the white people. So Beth deliberately spoke with her, and she said the woman seemed relieved.

The three African Americans in the room came at this topic from different angles.

“If you come to me and you invite me to make eye contact, it’s generally perceived as, ‘Oh, a friendly person! A friendly white person!’” Valerie said. “Because we do have those conversations in our household: ‘Were they white? Were they black?’“ Valerie said that if her son mentions that a woman was nice to him on a plane, “As much as I don’t want to ask, I will ask that question” about whether the woman was black or white. The remark provoked sympathetic laughter.

Brianna acknowledged feeling the same way as Valerie, but said she was working to see people as individuals.

Jacqueline said simmering resentment sometimes causes black people to avoid eye contact with whites. “And so the (avoidance of) eye contact may not be, ‘Oh, I’m surprised that you spoke to me.’ It may be, ‘I’m not going to give you the chance to do this to me.’ Because some people are simmering,” as if letting white people know they’d “better not say not one word to me!’“ Jacqueline said. ”Teeth clenched. Everybody’s not like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m so glad you spoke to me.’ It’s (because of) experience, right, because everybody has not been nice and kind.”

REACTING TO A RACIST COMMENT: Karen, a white woman in her late 60s, said she had parked at a supermarket’s parking lot in Benton Harbor and was walking toward the store when a young black woman drove the wrong way in the lot, not following the directional arrows. Karen said she must have looked a little startled. A young white couple was parking in the lot, and after they were had gotten out of their vehicle, the man said to Karen, “That’s Benton Harbor,” which Karen later realized was clearly code for black people, because Benton Harbor is predominantly black.

“It hit me, because when I lived in Detroit for those 40 years, that’s when I saw the most racism in myself, when I was driving,” Karen said. “I feel a bit bad that I didn’t say something back to him, but I don’t know that I was tracking (about what he was saying) until he got in the store, and then it was like, ‘Oh, my god, how did I let that go!’ Not that I could have changed his mind. But it didn’t feel right to let someone be able to say that in the middle of a parking lot and think there was no responsibility for it. And I was thinking about that. I was regretting my reaction, or lack of reaction.”

Jill said, “I think it’s hard to be brave, to call that out, but I think we have to. That’s why this awareness is so important.”

“I think it’s hard to be brave, to call that out, but I think we have to. That’s why this awareness is so important.

Stephanie, a white woman in her early 30s, said, “What does that sound like” to respectfully call someone out, “especially when you’re not trying to incite violence from somebody in a parking lot, or not trying to be down on somebody, because at any point in any of our lives that could be any of us?”

Participants discussed being careful for one’s physical safety, because a person who makes a racist remark could react violently to a verbal challenge.

Jill suggested that the parking lot incident might warrant a neutral response to the white man, such as “That could have been anybody.”

“Or using appreciative inquiry and asking him what he means,” Karen said.

Jerry said he would look at the guy and assess whether it was worth a fight, if it came to that.

Stephanie said a person in the situation Karen was in doesn’t necessarily have the relationship to hold someone accountable. “But you don’t want nothing to be said, or for it just to be OK to have it be said.”

Valerie, talking about reporting racist remarks to superiors in a workplace, said: “How do you protect the people who “out” that? How you make people be their bravest selves and say, ‘This is not right,’ without fear? Because fundamentally it’s about fear of repercussions: You lose a friend, or whatever.”

Jerry recalled his work in corporate human resources, including ensuring affirmative action and trying to stop sexual harassment. At one point he was responsible for the firing of four top people. “They got the message,” he said.

Jacqueline suggested letting people know that it’s not OK to say certain things to another person, even if that person is a stranger.

Valerie responded, “That almost sounds like a slogan, like ‘It’s not OK.’ I think, in your little circles, at dinner parties, wherever, just starting to challenge people by saying, ‘It’s not OK,’ so that we create this groundswell. If a lot of people start saying ‘That’s not OK,’ it gets unsafe for people to be sexist or racist.”

Brianna talked about a friend who is afraid to speak up in his workplace “because it’s a risk for him, and he doesn’t feel protected by his job, or by HR, and he’s like, ‘What do I do?, because if no one speaks up about it, it’s just going to keep happening. But I have a family to take care of,’” she said, quoting her friend.

Beth told a story about a black colleague who was assigned tedious work after she justifiably complained about doing high-level work and not being promoted, while whites were getting promotions.

Stephanie said this is the kind of instance where a white person could ally with someone of color. “Part of my challenge for myself is where can I be that ally?” Stephanie asked. “Not to just act alone, or something like that, but yeah, there’s an actual power imbalance there, so who could your friend ally with?” Stephanie said the onus is more on whites than on people of color in such situations. “How do I lend my power?”