In our own community, local voices are sharing this story – their story – and asking us to listen.
Local Leaders Speak Out On Racism
George Floyd was murdered on May 25. The next day protesters took to the streets in Minneapolis, and every day since then protests have roared through the streets of every state in the United States. Around the globe, people have united to echo this call for change, not only in support of the protesters in America but also to call-out and address similar issues in their own societies. After countless years of activism, a majority of the American population is finally beginning to see through the literal smoke. Unchecked police brutality took the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and armed White predators took the life of Ahmaud Arbery. Their lives mattered. Black Lives Matter. Although these are the names in our hearts today, the story of pervasive, systemic racism in our country is not a new one.
Racism Has Been The Most Durable American Institution
“This moment has a newness to it, but it’s not new,” stated Adonijah Gilmore. Gilmore is a local activist who attended the Charles Town protest and spoke at the Shepherdstown protest, both in early June. “Racism has been durable,” added Gilmore. “It looked like slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, voter suppression, gerrymandering, redlining, and police violence. The difference is that now we have social media and phones to amplify truths that we previously may have only been able to see on the news.”
Another resonating voice in the crowd was Vanessa Furby who, in addition to lending her energy to the Charles Town protest, has also been using social media to share her personal experiences and educate others. “For centuries, there have always been distractions,” said Furby. “This time something terrible happened, and all the world could do was watch and listen. Quarantine forced the world to stop.”
Dr. Chiquita Howard-Bostic, Chair of the Sociology Department at Shepherd University, has dedicated much of her life and career to educating about issues like these though her position as a tenured professor as well as founder of Help Bridge, a leadership education and social justice training organization. She was recently named associate vice-president for diversity, equity and inclusivity at the University. “The global definition of Blackness is an environmental identity and a social reality,” said Howard-Bostic. “These events have left a more vivid public view of real examples, and it has become a personal responsibility whether we each want to understand the history and appreciate its deeper meaning. We have gone through different articulations of how we address people’s color, from simply being recognized as human beings, pushing further for diversity and tolerance, and now moving toward multiculturalism and respect.”
Reverend Ernest Lyles is another longstanding educator of multiculturalism and social activism. Lyles is a life member of the NAACP, founder and first Director of Multicultural Student Services at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), and a minister and mentor for several churches and social programs throughout West Virginia and D.C. “What’s the problem with seeing color?” asked Lyles. “What I see is someone who brings something into our relationship that’s unique, and I appreciate that. We need to have open and honest conversations about race for us to understand racism and the impact that it’s having on our society.”
Howard-Bostic shared a similar perspective, “If you say that you are colorblind, you are saying that you decided not to see, not understanding that color is part of culture. You can’t begin to respect until you have access to education. Not knowing is no longer an excuse – Google it! Ask more questions and provide space to listen. Your particular interpretation of this reality is based upon your past experience and what you believe you know. Be kind, be present, and participate – that’s where cultural integration comes in.”
Gilmore also shared the importance of listening and learning. “I’ve always believed that ignorance is ok at first, because it simply means not knowing,” he asserted. “When you are presented with the true experience, what are you going to do? Take the time to really understand what we are saying.” The Black Lives Matter Movement has inspired a great deal of support, and has also been met with a great deal of resistance. “What has been discouraging is the continued lack of understanding,” added Furby, “the continued chant of indifference, like ‘All Lives Matter’.”
“People conclude that the words Black Lives Matter mean that other lives don’t matter,” Lyles said. “What Black Lives Matter is intended to mean is that our lives matter just as much as other lives. They overlook all of that and say ‘All Lives Matter’, even if they don’t believe it.” Howard-Bostic noted this misconception as well. “Black Lives Matter is not looting or burning things down,” she said. “Black Lives Matter is about generating understanding about unethical treatment of people of color. It almost seems that some justify not participating by giving it another meaning. But it’s not just the people, it’s the showcasing of the movement in our public forums that have established what is happening, and some of that is on purpose.”
Furby also spoke on the misrepresentation that results from the “media’s desire to distract from the cause and focus on destruction. Though it’s discouraging to see these insensitive, ignorant, hurtful reactions to the recent BLM movement, it’s also insightful. The racists are rearing the ugly face of hate that’s been harboring in their heart. The world is watching, and it’s easier to fight an enemy we can see.” Howard-Bostic stated, “People have to be able to remove the two separate conversations of looting and the death of Black people to understand what’s going on in different bubbles. This is the cumulative effect of years of pain, and villainizing the entire movement won’t help anything. We need to focus on smaller parts, and compartmentalize some of these issues to have moments of progress, kind moments, unified moments.”
Removing the ‘Force’ from Law Enforcement
The use of phrases such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and recently ‘defund the police’ often result in reflex responses of volatility and defensiveness before the true message has a chance to be taken up in meaningful discussion. Within a country that has been habitually quick to task law enforcement with responding to any and all issues, but historically slow to recognize that a simplistic focus on maintaining public order provides no real solutions, offering any sort of alternative vision of criminal justice is instantly met with resistance. Assumptions are made and a defense is built before the conversation begins. Gilmore explains, “Defund the police means reallocating resources and funds, and implanting that into schools, healthcare, housing, and employment. The goal is still to reduce crime and build community.” Gilmore also made the point that defunding education happens frequently, which is likely a contributing factor to social problems potentially leading to more crime.
Racism Without Thought or Intent Still Injures
These systemic issues extend far beyond a lack of awareness of social campaigns or overt expressions of racism. The prejudices associated with the global definition of Blackness are present at work, on social media, and around the dinner table. Passive or muted racism such as racist jokes and microaggressions “are just contemporary expressions of racism,” asserted Howard-Bostic. “The challenge is that people are communicating using everyday language, and they don’t understand that institutional racism has become embedded into other things. They don’t understand that it causes stress and pain and damage, threatening people’s confidence and knowledge-building process.”
Gilmore emphasized that these acts “subtract from authentic experiences and feelings that Black people have, even if they laugh with you. People who I thought supported me when I had no voice or used my voice just to make them laugh aren’t listening now. Always be open to feedback – if someone tells you that an innuendo is complicit in racism, you need to be able to accept that. It’s not about how you meant it, it’s about the meaning of it. Language is important. Once you feel that empathy and respect, you won’t feel like you need to use racism for a joke. If you still do, you’re just not that funny.”
A Daily Effort
While education about the realities of systemic racism in our society is a collective responsibility, the continued momentum of this movement has always depended upon the time and energy of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities (including those lending voices to this article). Activism may be widely featured in conversation right now, but these experiences are lived every day for many individuals, even when the topic is not trending.
“These conversations that people are having are about my life,” said Howard-Bostic. “Every day, I am constantly code-switching, changing my tone, vocabulary, and demeanor to interact with different populations. But I have the ability to make decisions that my grandmother and mother could not. As a college-educated African American woman, I have agency – the capacity and freedom to act and move. I can make a decision and I won’t be punished for that. More African Americans can protest in a non-violent way using advocacy rather than in-person protests. Then there are White friends who have stepped up using their privilege and voices to help engage the in-person non-violent marches and protests. When laying on the ground is the most effective way that you can protest without being taunted and agitated to turn a non-violent protest into something else, agency and choice of action are important.”
Furby, Gilmore, and Lyles also expressed an appreciation for the changing socio-cultural demographics of those standing against racial injustice and prejudice. “It’s been extremely encouraging to see that many different people from so many different backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, socioeconomic statuses, and countries have followed suit in protesting for Black lives,” said Furby. Gilmore explained that seeing crowds stand in solidarity has been moving, but he also has recognized more advocates “asking what they can do, and holding their closest people accountable to what they never identified as racism – even going as far as relinquishing relationships. I can’t appreciate enough how many people have stood with me and for me.”
All noted that although efforts from allies can be valuable, it’s important for individuals to constantly remind themselves and others to revisit the true message, keeping in mind that perceived intentions do not always align with the impact of actions. They encourage individuals to use their own voice and energy to lift the message of communities most affected by systemic racism, but to be cautious to not appropriate the message in a way that changes its meaning. They welcome the many new voices to add power to the message, with the hope that people can put aside their assumptions and interpretations, to avoid diluting its potency.
Share The Burden
“There is a lack of understanding of who ethnic minority people are. Some people may try to impose their way of life onto other people,” stated Lyles. Furby encouraged White allies to first appreciate that “they will never know what it is like to grow up in the environment in which Black people currently live. Saying anything along the lines of ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I’ve been treated the same way’ as a White person is provoking.” Gilmore explained, “A desire to figure out what you can do is a start, but this begins with self-education, not what somebody is going to give to you. There are great books, documentaries, and messages that really articulate and elaborate what Black and Brown people are saying now and have been saying for the last 400 years.”
“The only way to keep this momentum going is to continue to schedule marches, speeches, forums, and vigils,” asserted Furby, “keep having those tough conversations everywhere.” Gilmore added, “If we’re serious about eliminating systemic racism, we have to immediately repeal qualified immunity. We need to eliminate departmental quotas for pulling people over. We need to ban private prisons. We need to remove the incentives to treat Black and Brown people unfairly.”
Gilmore provided one more call to action: “I challenge any ally to learn about the complicated negligence in our history. Dig deep, try to understand, discover all of our heroes like Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, and Bobby Seale. Whenever you think you have a grasp on it, go deeper. No human is without worth or redemption, and you don’t know until you know. And when you do know, stand in solidarity with us so that we can work together.”By Rich Goodman