STATEMENTS from COMMUNITY CONVERSATION on RACISM AND BIAS
Do racism and bias exist in our Hudson Valley communities? Sadly, the answer is yes. Many of us witnessed this first hand during a recent children’s program at the Library that was Zoombombed with hateful and hurtful language. Others read about it in the papers, and many participated in our Community Conversation on Racism and Bias that was a first step in providing a safe place for open dialogue around these difficult issues. One of the witnesses of the Zoom attack says it best in her impassioned statement: “We are not exempt because of the warmth of many in our community. The ugliness and hatred reside here, and we need to find a way to not let anger pass onto yet another generation.”
Two of the speakers at our Community Conversation have agreed to share their very powerful statements with the wider community. Their words define the pain inflicted by racist and biased behaviors and language, and yet they offer hope that we can and must listen, learn, and take action to combat racism in our own lives, our towns and cities, our country and our world. They remind us, “It’s all important — each action we take individually and collectively – and takes us closer to creating a society where racism is not tolerated.”
We invite you to read these statements, to share them with your family and your neighbors, and to join us in this community-wide effort to do our part in ways large and small as we seek to end the scourge of racism and bias in all forms. The Library is working with other community groups to be sure we heed the wisdom shared here, and you will be hearing from us soon about ways you can become involved in this critical work.
COMMUNITY CONVERSATION PARTICIPANT #1
By now, many of you know of the hate crime that took place during a kids bake-off, hosted by wonderful librarians of the Desmond-Fish Library. As with the rest of the country, and the planet, we look forward to events like these that break up our days and keep us connected, even if virtually, as the pandemic rolls on. We were looking forward to sharing the evening with family we had invited to join the call, and were happy to see friends on the call too, so it was an awful shock to have the event purposefully marred by a hateful individual.
One single moment, a split second, is all it took for my child to see a word meant to diminish and demean Black people, to make them feel less worthy of existing, of living their lives. While my child is too young to fully understand the history and the full meaning of that word, the horror could, nonetheless, be seen on my face and on my husband’s face, and my child could feel in our reactions, that it was a terrible, awful, ugly word, and the tears and nightmares that kept us up that night and for many days after, are a reaction to that reality. My child felt the word was directed at us, and that’s something I can’t take away or fix, but what I can do is let my child know that they are worthy, that they have a wonderful soul, and so much to give and learn in this world, and that they are resilient and don’t need to let the hatred experienced shape their very identity. There are parts of life that are devastatingly painful, that we wish we could run from, and I wish I had been able to keep my child from seeing racist hate for just a little longer, so they wouldn’t have to, at such a young age, bear the heavy weight that has been a part of our country since it’s founding.
I wish I could have protected my child from seeing it, but my hand wasn’t fast enough to cover up or close the chat box on our monitor, and I will never forget the look on my child’s face when we saw the N word, repeated over and over and over again. Then, looking at the source, we – my husband, my child and I – all saw my name associated with such hatred. Gasping, my child said, “That’s the n-word…. Mommy, why are you writing that?!”, I frantically tried to get it to stop, and realizing I couldn’t, we left the zoom room. Friends on the call immediately reached out, asking if we were ok, and we have continued to see that love and support over the past two weeks from friends, acquaintances, and people we didn’t know before this happened.
I also realize that I experienced the hate on the call in a drastically different way than my child or my husband, or another Black community member on the call. I can never truly understand the depth of their pain, as that word wasn’t meant to hurt me in the same way it was hurled at them. I couldn’t bear to see my child in anguish, and the act harmed me because I know the evil hatred behind the words meant to destroy spirits, but it wasn’t directed AT me. I was disgusted and nauseous at the thought that my name was used by the perpetrator to spew hate, and I feared that people on the call who didn’t know me would think I was capable of saying those things. Certainly we, all of us on the call, had varying and valid reactions of witnessing this abuse and are victims of this crime, but I don’t think our fear and disgust can compare to the deep-seeded sadness and anger that this brought to those it was directed at – my child, my husband, and our fellow community member. I am so sorry for the society in which we live that continues to let this happen to wonderful, giving human beings and seemingly does little to protect them.
One could ask, in this moment, how an act of utter hatred and ugliness could happen in such a loving community, but I think that’s minimizing the centuries-old problem of racism and white supremacy in our country. What is true is that this sort of thing happens every day, in much smaller ways, and far greater and more destructive ways, in every community throughout the US. It starts as an underhanded comment here, or a sense of resentment there, it is seen in small acts that might not seem like much to the casual observer, but for those the hatred and anger is directed at, who live with it every day, it builds up and grows exponentially until it is released in acts similar to what we experienced on the zoom call, in the storming of the Capitol, and other actions that are deadly and destructive, both to the individuals the hate is directed at, and our society at large.
We are not exempt because of the warmth of many in our community. The ugliness and hatred reside here and we need to find a way to not let this anger pass onto yet another generation. And, while it’s uncomfortable to realize that racism is here and is pervasive, sitting with that discomfort, acknowledging it, and realizing our own complicity, whether intentional or not, is one of the first steps in accepting our role in combatting it. Years ago, I naively thought that racism and white supremacy would die out with the older generations, but I have come to realize and accept that it is continuing and growing among young people, and my generalized blame of an older generation was one way in which I contributed to a false narrative. White supremacy is a growing problem, expanding exponentially as the reach of hateful individuals is pushed forth faster than ever through social media and various online platforms. Personally, I struggle with how to address this – I have intolerant and racist members of my extended family, whom I am no longer in contact with, and I have been unable to sway their opinions and how they center themselves, so how am I to succeed in ridding the rest of our society of this way of thinking? I wish I could, but I don’t believe that racism can be eradicated. Even so, we can each do better in calling it out when we see it, to realize that even seemingly small moments, looks, or comments are harmful, and to let those perpetrating these acts know that their actions and hate won’t be tolerated. There is always more we can do and say, some of us relearning our country’s history and roles in perpetuating racism quietly, others protesting loudly in the streets, all of us examining and questioning our own biases. It’s all important, each action we take individually and collectively, and takes us closer to creating a society where racism is not tolerated.
I wish I could have prevented my child experiencing the pain felt that night, and in the days after as we continue to process, but I also know it was a matter of when we would have to confront this aspect of our society, not if. The perpetrator stole that one moment from us, but that is all they get. Whoever committed this act can’t have all the moments of love before and they won’t steal the days that follow. My child knows that I adore them and would never utter anything to harm them, and that the anger behind those words is born from a lack of acceptance, of perceived difference, and of hatred, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with them as a person and an individual. I hope my child is stronger knowing that, even if the manner in which it was learned is one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
COMMUNITY CONVERSATION PARTICIPANT #2
Thank you to the Philipstown Hub, Jen McCreery, & everyone else at Desmond-Fish Public Library, the Haldane PTA & Garrison Equity & Diversity groups, the Ecological Citizen’s Project, Mr. Gaynor with Cluster Inc in Westchester, and finally all who came to host, facilitate, listen & share in the conversation this evening.
What happened a few weeks ago brought a range of emotions: fear, anger & shock, guilt & shame, but most importantly, love & support. As with the range of emotions we felt on that day, so now, are we likely experiencing a wide range of emotions this evening. We may feel a desire to listen, and a desire to heal. Some here may feel that perhaps too much is being made of this; that perhaps folks are being a bit too sensitive. Some of us may feel that not enough is being made of this incident; that simply having a conversation just isn’t enough. Some among us may just be eager to move on, while some have been shaken to the core. No matter where on that spectrum our feelings lie, the one that I hope – that I need – for us all to share is a feeling of gratitude for the mutual respect. However, even more that that, I want us to share the need to listen.
My original intent was an attempt to describe my feelings as a human, father, & member of Haldane PTA’s Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion committee. My sense was that what occurred would somehow best be expressed if broken into its component parts. The truth of the matter is that attempting to compartmentalize them becomes less a tool to understand my feelings, than a mask so I could pretend that what I witnessed meant less to me than it really did. In as much as I was unable to shield my partner and child from what happened, so have I been unable to shield myself from my own range of feelings.
I come from a proud family that has worked, sacrificed, and loved in this country for many generations. Our families worked, sacrificed, and loved in the midst of the dehumanization of slavery, the bitter recrimination of reconstruction, the heavy yolk of Jim Crow, and the cold dismissal & denial after the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the mid-1960s. While great strides have been made during the decades of children born & elders buried, it seems that my elders, my parents, me, and now my child, have been unable to escape the sadistic rite of passage that comes with being Black in America. This rite, this burden to bear is that at one crucial point in our lives we will be introduced to the idea that our dark skin and African heritage cause us to be considered less. We are less deserving of citizenship, less deserving of respect, less deserving of life, liberty, or any pursuit of happiness, less deserving of protection, and less deserving of humanity.
When that moment comes – as it does for every African-American – the world changes, and when you look in the mirror or your feet on the floor at the start of a new day, you must deal with that reality. How we each deal with that is as individual as each person, but one thing remains the same: that from the lakes of MN, to the hills of TN, across the plains of TX, from sea to shining sea, there exists no “place like this” in America where African-Americans are spared this rite of passage. It is a painful and scarring rite, as old as America itself, woven into the fabric of the great American tapestry.
I was raised on stories of sacrifice that my grandparents made to ensure that my folks would not be denied an education, or the ability to make a life for themselves free from the clutches of segregation. In turn, I watched my parents endure hardship, heard their own tales of struggle, and watched them navigate the hidden and overt codes of racism. They did, and endured what was necessary to ensure that their children could grow up with as few impediments to the rewards of hard work and talent as possible. I witnessed – at times rebelled against – their tireless and loving efforts to raise us to be inquisitive, persistent, hard-working and faithful people filled with a desire to leave the world better than we found it. To paraphrase the words of theologian Howard Thurman, they placed a crown above my head that I would spend the rest of my life growing tall enough to wear. Please don’t mistake my meaning when I say this. These facts do not make me “special,” “not like the rest of them,”or “one of the good ones.” It just makes me part of an African-American family that has had to make their way in a country that has really never been eager to accept us into the American family. I was passed a baton down through the generations to run toward the day when this rite of passage becomes just a sad fable from a darker day.
Yet, in the safety of his home, at the turning of a new year, I stumbled. My child was introduced to a part of African-American life that so many in my family have struggled to eradicate. I couldn’t spare the shock, anger & tears. I couldn’t spare my partner the guilt, fear, and sadness that came from the simple act of loving, and building a family with me. I was unable to spare my neighbor, who I’ve met only a handful of times, the backlash that – in my mind – was received from a part of this community rankled and shamed by witnessing bravery, a lack of fear in living freely, and one who speaks truthfully. That I was unable to hold that at bay, that the elders & generations past who depended on me to carry the baton bore witness to the moment when I let my loved ones down the most was as hurtful as the moment itself.
However, on that same night, through those hard conversations, I saw my elders’ sacrifices honored. I picked it up and kept running. I saw the progress that has been made. We were embraced in the moment by cherished friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who asked after us, holding my family in love. A nearly overwhelming number of folks reached out their hands in support to embrace us in beloved community and picked us up, offering a balm to my child’s pain and my partner’s hurt. I may have been unable to spare my child this painful introduction to his uniquely African-American experience, but I was also able to show in the hours & days that followed that their grandparents did make a bend in the arc of history toward justice, that love can indeed drive out hate. Finally, as we share with each other, listen to each other, and help move toward healing together, I can show that this thread is a part of the American tapestry too.