Terry Stokes in his apartment in Benton Harbor, Mich.
Wide-Ranging Thoughts on Racism, American-Style
An hour-and-a-half interview with Terry Stokes unleashed a torrent of thoughts on why white people act the way they do, and how he and other Black people have learned to survive and respond. See the main story: “His ‘Boil-Over’ Point”
Here are some thoughts, topic by topic, from 62 years of living as a Black male in the U.S.
REVENGE WITH A PORSCHE
The factory Terry Stokes worked at in Benton Harbor, Mich., years ago had mostly white workers. “Those people at that company I worked at did everything they could to slow me down from achieving,” even when at times he had more seniority for positions that opened. He held on, and eventually moved up. “And so, when I walked out of there one day and had my own restaurant, one of the first people (who) could do that, I couldn’t wait to drive by when they were on break in my Porsche … like I was casually passing through. I know they’d know I’m doing good. I know they aren’t going to come over there and buy from me” at his restaurant. Terry channeled what he thought his former coworkers must have been thinking: “This Black boy had left, and he’ll make millions of dollars. That was supposed to be me — not him. This doesn’t fit my understanding. That was supposed to be one of us, not him.”
CONVOLUTIONS OF THE MIND
Terry is aware of his blackness every waking hour of every day. “It’s got to the point now that it’s in my subconscious mind, that I don’t have to think about it. And I don’t know how to not be that way. I’ve been that way all my life. I’m always conscious everywhere I go that I have to behave and respond a certain way. I’m always on guard. I don’t know how to not be on guard. I was born on guard. It’s like another sense.
“But from time to time I think about what I’m not thinking about.”
These layers of the mind help him detect subtle racism. “That’s one thing good comes out of this, that your senses become heightened in some areas” — as in detecting if a customer service person waiting on him is not being genuine.
“AN OPEN WOUND”
“I don’t feel like I can ever heal,” Terry said. “There was a time when I left the South, when I came up here, that was a time when I felt people didn’t know who I was, I was able to lay some things down, got a job and I liked and felt a little bit better. But, periodically, incidents like this [George Floyd’s death] reminded me — it’s like an open wound that can never heal. Because soon as I think I’m healing a little bit, I’m able to just go through life and feel like I’m just a person, there’s moments that I’m reminded that: not so.”
COULD HE “REPROGRAM” HIMSELF?
If racism magically ended right now — “Everything was fair, everything was equal, I had the same opportunity as anybody, my blackness won’t stop me from going anywhere” — Terry suspects it would take him years to let his guard down. “And I don’t know, at this age, I’ve been doing this so long, how could I reprogram myself to not feel that way, and not think that way, and not see people with caution?”
RIOTING NOT PREFERRED, BUT UNDERSTANDABLE:
Terry doesn’t like to see rioting, looting, and burning. “But I understand it. You get full, and when you don’t know how to express yourself, and you don’t know how to vent your frustration, it comes out any way it can. And so, people that mistreat people don’t have the luxury of telling people how they can vent their frustrations. No one’s listening, so that’s the way it comes out, with some people.”
Terry found particularly revealing a quote from the Gene Hackman character in “Mississippi Burning,” a 1988 movie about three civil rights workers who disappear in Mississippi. Hackman, who plays FBI agent Rupert Anderson, a former sheriff in Mississippi, is recalling how his father once told him, “If you ain’t better than a nigger, Son, who are you better than?” Terry thinks this is an attitude some white people have used over the centuries to feel superior.
WHY DO SOME WHITE PEOPLE HATE BLACK PEOPLE?
To partially answer his own question, Terry said: “I think white people have been lied to for so long. It goes way back.” To illustrate, he talked about a white waitress being told that Black people don’t tip well. When she has a Black customer, “She believes this and gives poor service.” Result: The Black customer, logically, doesn’t tip well. But the low tip reinforces the waitress’s belief, and also her behavior, in the future toward Black customers. Another example is the media portrayal of Black people. If the “worst side” of Black people is what comes out most often in the media, then “that becomes normal,” and “it’s easy to believe we’re all like that,” Terry said.
He conceded that for some white people the emotion might not be as strong as hate. For them, “They just don’t see us as equal.”
WHITES HIDE THEIR TRUE THOUGHTS
Terry has participated in Brave Talks, small discussion groups of Black and white people. These guided conversations are part of Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism in the Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Mich., area. Terry said America will not really move forward on black-and-white relationships until white people can be honest in conversations with Black people about their feelings regarding them, without dressing up their language or holding back. “Because I really believe that, sometimes in these Brave Talk groups, I don’t think my white brothers and sisters are really open with us. I don’t think they would say the same thing if it was all white people. I think it would be a different conversation.
“So, when I’m in a Brave Talk group and I see my white brothers and sisters act like they’ve heard something for the first time, it leaves me in shock. It’s almost like, ‘Where have you been? Do you live under a rock? Or are you in denial?’” Speculating about what might be going on in the mind of a white person in the conversation, he channeled that person as thinking this way: “It’s something I don’t have to deal with, so I can see it or don’t see it.”
“PUT THAT UGLY THING ON THIS PLATE”
Terry wants white people to be frank with Black people. “To me we will never get to it (a state of far better race relations) until we really know why” some white people hate Black people or feel superior to them, he said. “The ‘why’ might be a raw thing. I believe white people know how other white people feel. And I think people that are racist feel comfortable to express it around other white people. I want white people to sit in the room with me, and don’t dance around stuff, don’t pretend that they don’t know, don’t pretend that they haven’t been around other white people and didn’t hear it. It’s their silence is what the problem is.” He said white people need to confront this problem of silence. “But it’s inconvenient, it’s uncomfortable.”
A “raw” discussion would be good, he said. “But tell us what it is. And put it on the table. You can’t spare anybody’s feelings. Put that ugly thing on this plate. Put it out there for me to look at. And then we can determine how we’re going to go about dealing with it.”
Racism is a constant topic for African Americans, Terry said. “Black people talk about it all the time. It’s a part of daily life.”
WHAT YOU CAN DISCOVER ABOUT PEOPLE ON FACEBOOK
Terry has been shocked by what some white people he has considered his friends post on Facebook. He now considers these people “Trumpsters.” He said: “In my mind, if you follow this guy (President Trump), you can’t be a Christian.” Terry said he can never regard one woman the same way he had before, now that he has seen what she posts online. Speaking of his “fly-on-the-wall” mode of observation, he said of these people, “They’ll never know what I know about them.”
In a broader way, he also observes the vile, racist Facebook posts from white people he doesn’t know. “I don’t go looking for it. I already know it exists,” he said. “And white people are doing it all day long, every day.” He mentioned a woman who posted that Trump is better “than that monkey before him.” And he saw a post from a woman who drew lines on a picture of George Floyd to his nose, using the N-word for him, and wondering why he couldn’t breathe, given his wide nostrils.
Terry seemed to feel that justice is served when some people capture these racist comments in screenshots and send them out widely for other people to see. He noted that some high-ranking executives have been fired from their jobs for such posts.
A CONFEDERATE FLAG — YET LOTS OF MIXED-RACE CHILDREN, TOO
Terry found reasons for both pessimism and optimism in a paradox he has experienced at summer parades he has attended with the barbecue business. He said those small-town events in Berrien County, Michigan, have invariably featured one truck with a Confederate flag. He has looked for any reactions that observers were appalled but found no reactions at all. “It was normal.” But at these same events he was surprised by an apparent racial fact of life in these small towns. “You’ve got all these little mixed kids, these white girls with these little half-mixed kids. No one is treating them badly, no one is doing anything to them. No one is giving them a look. I’m like, ‘How do both of these things exist in the same space?’ But there’s the Confederate flag … I’ve seen some white families, grandmas holding these little mixed kids, like it was almost nothing.”
WHITE FRIENDS AND WHITES HE ADMIRES
Terry is by no means a white-people basher. He sees people as individuals, just as he wishes to be seen. His admiration and love extend to his white father, now deceased. He mentioned admiringly that his father flew bombing missions in World War II, and he obviously admires the role busting his father did in marrying a Black woman in the South in the middle of the 20th Century.
“I’ve always known that there are good white people, godly white people.” He lauded the whites who were brave enough to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., some at the risk of their lives. He said he wants to see stories about them. “Tell me what was it like for that white brother,” he said.
“VALIDATING” LOW ACHIEVEMENT
How coworkers tried to subdue Terry in his ambitions at the factory is just one more example, in his view, of how white people have set conditions for Blacks to fail, and then essentially exclaimed, “See! They failed again!”
“So, I think a fear (white people have) is that if you let Black people go unchecked, they could possibly be president of the United States, and we can’t have that! They could be the head of these companies and corporations, and the next thing you know, we’ll be under them. And I think there’s a fear of that, whether people admit it or not,” Terry said.
“And they’ve got all these stories to validate it,” such as his own nearly all-black high school in Louisiana, where only a white student could be quarterback. Or this: “A Black man can’t run an NFL team. [Experience] validates it. And we’re slowly beginning to break those things down to find out, they were all lies — all along.”
MORE DIVERSITY TRAINING? NO, SIR!
Terry is impatient with the idea of achieving good relationships between Black and white people through a studied, coursework approach of training and workshops and breakout groups. “We’ve had … years and years and years of diversity training. What do we need diversity training for?” he asked. “We make it complex, but it’s not complicated. You can’t legislate love. The truth is really not that complicated: Treat people the way you want to be treated. See me the way you see anybody else. Your problem is solved. Believe that I am your equal. Believe that you’re not better than me. What else is there to talk about? What else is there? There is nothing else.” He added: “This is something God’s got to do.”
THAT SO FAR-AWAY “ONE DAY”
Terry indicated that African Americans have long been in the habit of thinking about “one day” in the future, when everything will be different. “It’s always like, well, you know — one day. All your life you’re thinking: One day it’s going to be different. One day. One day, this country … One day this (racism) is going to start happening less. One day I’ll be able to rise to whatever. And people say (to Terry), ‘Well, you have been successful.’ I would imagine myself being more successful than I have been. One day. I would like to know that it (racism) had nothing to do with it, and that I can go as far as I can take myself, and that thing will not slow me down, it will not limit me. That’s the day.”
Read More: His Boil Over Point