By Stefanie Jackson – Eastern Shore Community College staff and local citizens started what they hope will be an ongoing dialogue on race when they participated in an online video conference titled “Conversations On Race” Monday night.
But to understand the conversation, one must first understand the YouTube video that participants were asked to view, “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man,” by Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL linebacker.
Acho used YouTube as a “safe space” to receive and answer questions from his “White brothers and sisters to increase your level of understanding so that you can increase your level of compassion and lead ultimately to change.”
The first question he answered was why some Black people are responding to racial and social injustice with rioting instead of protesting.
Acho quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”
Since the 1960s, according to Acho, peaceful protests have been ineffective at raising awareness of the oppression of Black people, which has led to recent rioting, he said.
He noted that he does not condone rioting but “sometimes pain and hurt, it doesn’t know how to express itself.”
Acho continued by sharing his definition of “White privilege” – having a head start in life due to hundreds of years of systemic racism.
“It’s not saying your life hasn’t been hard, but … your skin color hasn’t contributed to the difficulty in your life,” he said.
Acho then addressed why some believe it’s acceptable for Black people but not White people to use the “N-word.”
“Black people took something that was meant and originally used as evil, and we turned it into a term of endearment,” but when White people use the term, it “reminds us of the pain of our ancestors,” he said.
Acho also addressed why Black people appear to focus more on White-on-Black crime than Black-on-Black crime. According to Acho, it’s the same reason why those people proclaim “Black lives matter” instead of “all lives matter”:
“Right now, Black people are dying at the hands of White people, and I can’t change that. Only you, my White friends, you all can change that,” he said.
During the virtual conference hosted by ESCC, Pastor Irvin Jackson, of the Living Word Church of Deliverance in Parksley, asked participants to describe their reactions to the YouTube video.
“I loved it,” said Tina Taylor, ESCC’s workforce innovation and opportunity coordinator. She appreciated that White people want to know and understand the Black experience, and videos like “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” make it possible for them to get the answers they seek.
She also is unfamiliar with the daily life of White people, particularly parents. Taylor said she didn’t know what kind of advice white parents have to give their sons to stay safe and live, but “Black mothers have to say a whole lot more” than “look both ways before you cross the street.”
Lisa Johnson, vice-chair of ESCC’s advisory board, called that “the talk” – a talk she felt she still needed to have with her 29-year-old son when he bought a new pair of running shoes after Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia Black man, was fatally shot in February when three White men chased him down while he was jogging.
“I don’t need sympathy. One-hundred percent of me seeks to be understood. … listen and consider that my reality … and a White person’s reality are two very different things,” Johnson said. She wants empathy.
Jackson wanted to know what other questions Black people and White people had for each other.
Taylor asked, “What have we done … to offend you so, when we were the race that was enslaved?”
Arthur Carter, a retired doctor who identifies as African American, considered her question. In his answer, he referred to the story of Jack Johnson, who became the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1908.
“His crime … ‘unforgivable Blackness,’” Carter said.
From the beginnings of American history, the term “Black” has been defined by the nation’s language and culture as “bad, evil, dirty, hypersexual, violent,” he explained.
“White” has been defined as Black’s “polar opposite,” or “good, pure, holy, peaceful, nonviolent, hyposexual.”
“We know all of those are lies,” Carter said.
He recommended the book “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Ibram X. Kendi, which discusses the evolution of racist language in America.
Carter also recommended that all teachers, from kindergarten through college, show their students the PBS program “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” which discusses scientific findings suggesting there are no genes linked to the physical characteristics humans use to define race.
He also had a request. As a believer that race is a social construct, Carter spoke in terms of ethnicity, not race.
“What I would want, and do want, is for European Americans – those who are willing – to become allies in the quest for righteousness, social justice, and equality. Not to walk in front … not to walk behind … but side-by-side” with African Americans, he said.
Jackson asked the conference participants what they would do to create “excellent race relations.”
Johnson would implement a “servant-leadership” power structure, in which “the motive is not about ‘me,’ but the motives are about the common good.”
For Pat Bane, it’s about “personal relationships” and “sharing and doing things together.” When one counts people from other races as friends and they spend a lot of time and talk together, “how quickly you forget the differences and how many things you find in common,” she said.
Christina Duffman, ESCC English instructor, asked participants what they would like to result from the ongoing conversation on race.
Carter would like to see centuries-old issues in both Northampton and Accomack counties finally resolved.
Northampton supervisors passed a resolution in 1808 and received state funding to remove from the county every African American man, woman, and child who wasn’t a slave. Northampton’s citizens have never received an apology to this day, Carter said.
Accomack County history records at least one lynching, that of Magruder Fletcher, a Black man, in 1889. He was accused of sexually assaulting a White woman in Tasley.
There were also race riots in Onancock in 1907, involving shootings and burning of buildings.
None of these events have been acknowledged even with a historical marker, Carter pointed out.
But he looks to the future and hopes for the day that “the color of a human being’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his or her blouse, eyes, hair, or pants.”
ESCC President Jim Schaeffer changed his mind about what he wanted to gain from the conversations after he had listened to what his colleagues had to say about the Black experience.
“I was going to use the word ‘understanding’ and then I thought, ‘No, I want more than that.’ … I want to build up my sense of empathy,” he said.
Patrick Tompkins, ESCC’s vice president of academics, workforce, and student programs, wanted “change.”
He spoke of the removal of Confederate monuments and said its “symbolism is very important,” but it doesn’t bring about real change.
“The only discouraging thing for me in this time is, sometimes, despair that change is not coming,” he said, but he believes “the arc is bending the right way.”