Alison Gayton

Alison Gayton

Editor’s Note: These commentaries are a collaboration between the Olean Times Herald and interviewer Marcia Kelly with area residents, in hopes of creating better understanding.

I have lived my entire life in Olean. I went from elementary school to high school in Olean City School District. I went to Olean Business Institute in the medical office program, which led to working in various physicians’ offices, Olean General Hospital and, presently, for a local pulmonologist.

I have two grown daughters and a teenage son, as well as five grandchildren.

Being raised in a mixed family, I never dealt with racism at home, nor did I deal with any intolerance. I feel I was raised to be pretty open-minded. Everyone was considered equal. Everyone.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized some of what I had experienced outside my home was racism. As children, we do not recognize racism. These are the ”norms” we learn, unless they are corrected or directed otherwise.

Growing up as a mixed child in Olean, not only did I see racial insensitivity from white people, it happened from the black people as well. It took me many years to recognize it for what it was: You are not white enough or black enough, you talk too white, you don’t act black enough. You don’t identify with either side. We are taught at a very early age, that if you don’t look like the others, you don’t belong. It’s very toxic.

I used to think we as a country have come a long way, but to sit here today you wouldn’t believe it. This current movement to end racism is an extension of what my grandparents went through. We are still fighting for equality and inclusion.

More recently, with my involvement in the Olean Regional Justice Coalition, I have seen that the depths of racism in Olean is still very prevalent. Some signs are blatant, but others are more subtle. Just because police brutality doesn’t happen here doesn’t mean the ignorance isn't here. It doesn’t mean racism isn’t built into the system.

In order to fix the system, conversation needs to start at home, with family and friends. We need to have tough conversations about race and privilege with those in our lives.

We also need to teach diversity, inclusion and “real” American history in school. So much of black history is not included in our teaching. Black history is a part of ALL American history, not one chapter. I would love to see Olean City School District take a firm stand on this and commit to including this in the curriculum.

Nationally, the biggest social justice issue at hand is police brutality, most frequently at the expense of black lives. People frequently say that Olean doesn’t have this issue, but the entire American justice system is built on racist ideals and needs to be redone from the bottom up. This system punishes people of color at a higher rate. This system keeps them in prison longer. And our social structures, from voting districts to average income variances by race, build inequity in all aspects of life.

We need national and local leaders who will stop the divisive rhetoric. Locally, our police department would benefit from reform. The system needs to be examined for equity. Black Americans across this country are suffering at the hand of oppressive policing, failing and poorly resourced schools and segregated housing and these are just a few areas that have both national and local effects.

Before we can start to end racism, our federal and local government officials have to acknowledge that it's here and that it's a systemic problem. The first presidential debate proved that the current administration is not capable of bringing this country towards a more diverse and inclusive space. This president refused to denounce white supremacy but, in fact, asked the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

President Trump is not for the betterment of people of color. We have known this since the day he took office. We no longer can sit back and watch this government at the very top divide this country. Now imagine what is going on at the state, county and city levels of government, all while racial sensitivity training is being banned from federally funded agencies.

Racial sensitivity is the heart of what America should mean. In stark contrast, the current president stated that racial sensitivity is racist. He stated that it teaches people to hate our country, and that it has a negative look on our country. This is furthest from the truth. Equity and inclusion should be at the very heart of this country. Trump also tweeted that “Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t there’s nothing in it for you”.

In my opinion, Trump does not want people thinking about true American history, which DOES include the barbaric treatment of blacks. If people begin to educate themselves, they will begin to see things differently. This administration wants to take “us” back to that period of time, therefore the betterment of black people cannot be part of his plan.

We desperately need a more diverse, equitable and inclusive country and we need this more than ever in Olean. We need a younger and more diverse demographic here in order for our city to survive.

This is why I participate in the ORJC. Its mission is equity for all folks, and equity brings diversity in population and progress for communities.

When I say “Black Lives Matter,” and the response of Olean residents is “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter,” “Trump 2020” or, as I heard recently at a voter registration/protest event by ORJC, “No they don’t,” it becomes clear to me that Olean has a racism problem.

Yes, all lives matter, but if we can’t make sure that all lives actually do matter, we cannot utter those words. Black Lives is not a political agenda, it's a human rights movement, a civil rights movement.

I believe the biggest thing people can do to help is start conversations. Talk to your neighbors, talk to the people who don’t look like you. I know it sounds simple but the more you are engaging with others, the easier the conversation becomes.

It’s not enough to say, “I’m not racist.” You have to actively work to end racism. You are afraid of what you don’t know — so KNOW. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power. Read, read, read! Understand the history and the plight of African American people over time, so that you can do your part in engaging in this conversation.