'What future are we going to have?': Forums on race, racism continue
Local activists and diversity leaders share personal stories and historical perspective on race and politics
A racial hierarchy was established from the beginning, well before the British first colonized what became the United States of America — a theme Virgil Slade, professor of History and Africana Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, brought to the table during a virtual panel discussion Wednesday.
Slade talked about the origins of “whiteness” going back hundreds of years and discussed historical events showing how those of European descent have maintained political power.
“Have ideas of Blacks in America really changed?” Slade posed this question during the discussion on race and racism, one of three in a series presented by Wood Library and the City of Canandaigua’s Equity and Diversity Task Force. The third installment will be 7-9 p.m. Thursday. (Registration is available online at woodlibrary.org, or by emailing Adult Services Librarian Alexis Lawrence at email@example.com.)
Slade referred to killings of Black people by police and the reaction of law enforcement to Black Lives Matter. Law enforcement is supposed to “protect and serve everyone in the same way,” said Slade, adding that there continues to be a “plantation-like understanding of blackness.”
He talked about the need to reeducate society, which he said begins with each person taking responsibility to reeducate themselves.
“It’s a lifelong process and requires repeated introspection,” Slade said.
Panelist Gaynelle Wethers, an activist and education coordinator from Rochester, talked about growing up in Louisiana during segregation and what it was like at age six to sit behind the “colored sign” on the bus.
“If you are born and raised white in the United States of America you are trained to be racist. We are stamped by birth. Black people are stamped by birth,” Wethers said.
She said the “sin of racism” continues to destroy.
“Yes, I am angry,” said Wethers. “What future are we going to have? How we are living it is not normal, it is not just — and it is not right.”
Sim Covington Jr., chief diversity officer, Academic and Student Affairs at Finger Lakes Community College, talked about the influences that drive racism.
“People see things through the lens of their experience,” he said, pointing to conflicting viewpoints such as Black Lives Matter vs. Back the Blue; No Justice No Peace vs. When the Looting Starts the Shooting Starts; and Defund the Police vs. Defend the Police.
Covington talked about the need to listen to those with different viewpoints, not to necessarily agree but to understand — to not dismiss those with different views. The whole concept of inclusion is opening the door to dialogue, he said.
Khuram Hussain, professor of Education and vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, shared his personal experience with bigotry. He has been asked, “Are you a terrorist?” And after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he experienced himself what it is like to be fearful based on bias. He said that when he boarded a plane after 9/11 and saw a man who looked like his grandfather, his initial reaction was fear.
Covinvton said his whole life people have claimed to see UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot, but have failed to see racism, sexism, homophobia and other discrimination.
“We basically want the same things,” said Slade. “At our very foundation we are all the same.”
Slade talked about how COVID-19 has brought to light people not usually noticed or appreciated, such as the essential workers staffing grocery stores, doing garbage pickup and other necessary jobs. He said it is essential to recognize that everyone is as human as ourselves.
“COVID told us this society cannot survive unless we are indebted to each other. Now we know we are indebted to each other,” Slade said.