Editor’s Note: This commentary, the result of a collaboration between the Olean Times Herald and interviewer Marcia M. Kelly, gives voice to African American members of area communities with the hope that it will give viewpoints some might not have been exposed to before, with the goal of creating greater understanding.
n What are the most pressing issues in your mind, both big and small — locally and nationally?
At this moment, there are many pressing issues given the current events. The global pandemic seems to be the catalyst for a lot of what is happening. This was the case even in our relatively small community in Cattaraugus County.
I was doing EMT training and we received information from the state regarding protocols. Then news about how the virus adversely affected African Americans, Hispanics and First Nations people more than Euro-American groups moved the conversation to structural racism within the health care system, within the economic system where the service jobs deemed essential are dominated by people of color and put them at a higher risk of contagion.
Then the George Floyd murder erupted. This was not the first time a black man was brutalized at the hands of police, but it was recorded and set loose on the web for all to see.
It’s like all the pain, hurt, anguish and fear came to a head. People were tired of seeing the dehumanization of their own, and it was the first time many people witnessed the brutality of law enforcement. People’s anxieties were already on the rise because of the virus, many of the youth were either at home from school or out of a job, so they could afford to protest in the streets. Protests turned to riots, people took to social media to either justify or demonize the protestors and rioters.
I observed the lack of leadership. The rhetoric was one of “law and order,” of property is more important than lives, and amnesia that the United States was born on a foundation of violence.
America glorifies violence on our screens, but deems human nudity as profane and demonizes sex when all human beings are the product of male and female sexual union. American culture is broken. We need better leadership that leads everyone. We need leadership that can be empathetic to the fears and needs of all people. We need leadership that will stand up to corporate interests and respects research, experts and professionals. We need to challenge our biases and be self-reflective instead of reactive.
As an anthropologist, I understand that human beings are ethnocentric. It is what kept the majority of people together in an ethnic group. In America there is us and them, the believers and the non-believers, citizens and the other. Appreciating diversity takes work and investment but we must take care that white-supremacy is not substituted for another supremacy.
n Can you give examples that you or friends and family have experienced locally?
My husband and I are different because I am bi-racial and he is Native American. We are aware that people don’t always like difference. They find it threatening. That’s why when we moved to our little Cattaraugus County town, I convinced my husband to join the volunteer fire hall. What better way to introduce ourselves to the community and encourage them to accept our difference by joining one of the foundations of the community?
It worked, mostly. However, a few months after moving to the area, there was conflict with one of our neighbors over one of our barking dogs and his son’s partying. When a complaint was made to the son, the neighbor Facebook messaged that we were on his “native land” and accused my husband of being drunk and belligerent to the boy, both stabs at my husband’s First Nation’s heritage. He basically threatened us with racial undertones.
Although not outright racist, one of the first things we noticed was the ubiquity of the Confederate flag in the area. We have often wondered what meaning people give to validate their flag waving. Most recently, the flags have gotten bigger.
I haven’t experienced any overt racism. I think because I am “mixed” and have light skin I pass for white. Living in this tiny town, I keep to myself and often don’t pay too much mind to people’s ignorance. However, through my EMT training I did encounter transphobic language and jokes, as well as some questionable statements regarding Muslims and politely spoke up.
My husband experiences more racism because of the underlying tension between Seneca and Euro-Americans. That he is a Native American man and is subject to more physical scrutiny, the threat of violence — verbal or physical — is more prominent from looks at the YMCA to driving down the road. He has been followed, stared out and cursed. This is the whitest place that each of us have lived and at first it was a bit harrowing. I think as we grow older and wiser we learn to see beyond our biases.
n What do you think the non-Black local residents are missing in understanding the plight of African Americans today?
Local non-Black residents might be missing the point that we have a racial hierarchy in this nation that was built to separate and divide us from one another. I taught history for a few years in East Harlem. One of the things I remember telling my American History students is that poor people of both white and black “races” have more in common with each other than they do differences, but it was the powers that be that accentuated the differences in order to keep us from uniting and using our power to topple them. I still believe this is true.
The USA was built on the belief that white men of Anglo-Saxon heritage, who owned property, were superior to all others.
U.S. policies from slavery and Jim Crow, to redlining and eugenics (forced sterilization not just of African American women, but Puerto Ricans, First Nations and mentally retarded women) have adversely affected African Americans. In the U.S., hypodescent declares that if you have one drop of black blood you are deemed black, and that goes back to the policies of disenfranchisement and keeping resources available for white prosperity.
Another thing people may not realize is that Africans were used as slaves because they were easier to pick out than other Europeans. It’s hard for working-class and poor white people to understand the plight and stress that comes with increased melanin because they experience their own struggles. The issue, is it is easier for a white person or person with light skin to blend in and assimilate or pass as a member of the dominant race than if you have dark skin? Additionally, we all have biases. But many people don’t want to do the work to understand how that might make them prejudiced.
n What do you see as the best steps to be taken to bring needed change to each of these areas?
I think we need to listen to each other and understand that we all come from our own perspectives and experiences. We need to respect that and allow people to express themselves. I used to be very angry at white people — I was angry at what whiteness represented — oppression, colonialism, exploitation.
Mind you, I had white friends but when I moved to Indiana to pursue my PhD. I was exposed to white people on another level. Through our meditation practices, breath and physical work, coupled with philosophy and introspective studies my anger became more tempered.
I understood that we as human beings have levels of needs and fear is the opposite of love. If our basic needs are not met or are threatened we come from a place of fear. I think the path to understanding others first begins with understanding oneself. If we want a fairer, more equitable society we must look at how the most vulnerable of our society are treated and work to uplift and protect them because in so doing we help ourselves be kinder, less fearful people.
n What would a truly inclusive space look like and how do we get there?
An inclusive space is built on a common goal of humanization. It is built on the premise that we are all human beings and have the same basic needs. An inclusive space empowers people to speak their truth and gives others the tools to listen with an open heart, rather than just wait for the opening to give their opinion.
An inclusive space allows for people to value each other’s experiences/ways of being without the fear that it will devalue any other persons’ culture or heritage. An inclusive space addresses problems in the systems without placing blame on individuals, otherwise ego rises up in defense. An inclusive space, calls people out if they are wrong or being hurtful without being judgmental but with the intent of doing no harm.
We live in the richest nation on earth and yet we still have subpar public education and health, people going hungry, and being exploited. The media fuels our fears — we need to change that. We need a major culture shift away from violence. We need to hold media producers — news, entertainers and video games — accountable if they spread hate, division and violence.
We need to hold our leaders to higher standards because they are supposed to be the example.