By Harlan Johnson
After over fifty years of working to overcome institutional racism with an emphasis on the tragic separation we live with – what I call unintentional apartheid – I began to face the fact that I continue to live in a segregated world, having little meaningful contact with people of color.
There are two exceptions. “Sacred Path,” weekly pot-lucks my neighbor sponsors, is always racially diverse, and I enjoy attending these gatherings when I can. My neighbor is of the Bahai faith, and while these gatherings are not Bahai functions they have a spiritual focus. And the food is great! I’m also involved in a local public housing advocacy group made up of residents and people partnering with them to overcome poverty and oppression.
I’d explored becoming active with the NAACP in prior years with little success, and I
decided to try again. This time I succeeded.
I’m involved in climate justice activities locally, and I discovered that NAACP has a national campaign for environmental and climate justice. I volunteered with my local unit to develop an Environment and Climate Justice Team, and my offer was accepted by Lloyd Johnston, the president of the local unit in Rockford IL. I’m working to develop this team.
Lloyd and I had served for two years on the “Rockford Mediation” group regarding criminal justice, a group convened by Department of Justice personnel prompted by the shooting of an unarmed Black man in a church by two white policemen. The group’s goals were never met and it was disbanded. Recently, Lloyd invited me to join an NAACP committee dealing with issues of criminal justice. We’re doing important things in several areas including work for legal redress and a program to inform young Black men how to interact with law enforcement personnel in ways that preserve their dignity and safety.
So now I spend several hours each month in meetings dealing with NAACP matters including the executive team, and this is a new experience for me. Prior to this, almost all of my social, professional and civic life had been in what I’d call white environments. Almost no gathering – church, civic, business, or social – would have more than two or three people of color if that. Now I’m the only white person in the room. Every other place I go, it’s all white with few if any people of color.
The NAACP environment is new to me: I don’t think those present change their behavior because of my presence – although there is no way of knowing that for sure. What I am aware of is that I’m in a very different social environment – a different culture. I have a lot to learn. I recall my Peace Corps experience fifty years ago in India – living in a culture very different from what I had been used to. And here, in my own town, there are differences just as palpable as the ones I had experienced in a foreign country. We have a lot in common – and there are also many differences.
I’d like to describe what it’s like for me. It’s difficult to express. I’m different of course – a white man. The adversary is institutional racism – not all white men – and we’re all committed to overcome racism. I’m acutely aware that we really do look different – very different for the most part. I suppose I notice this because I am so seldom in a Black environment.
I’d been taught about the importance of “cultural humility” at a national meeting of Unitarian Universalist members of ARE, Allies for Racial Equity – a group comparable to the EALA. So what do I do with that internalized “white male privilege” we’ve been taught that people carry around, a tendency to defer to white men – or perhaps react against it. What do I do when I have something to contribute to the conversation? How do I balance my spontaneity with respect for people who may experience me as another white man using his power?
I am grateful to be accepted in the NAACP chapter, and I have learned some important things. There is a little booklet describing the NAACP, and as I leaf through it, I’m aware of the fact that a lot of white people who have no interest in African Americans – even those who don’t particularly like African Americans – would discover that the goals of the NAACP are their goals!
The NAACP was founded in Springfield, IL in 1909 by a group of eight people, six of them white, after a horrible race riot (whites killing Blacks). I’d like to see more white
involvement in the NAACP now – and yet our society seems to have re-segregated itself in many ways, and it appears to me that few white people are active in the NAACP. I’m the only one I know of in Rockford.
I’m happy to be working for things I believe in with others who are also committed to
racial justice. I’m delighted to be an active member of the NAACP, exploring how to overcome the barriers to connection and equity. This may be a honeymoon period for me. The inevitable conflicts that happen in all organizations will probably occur, and that I may experience discomfort and challenges. But after waiting for that dream Dr. King spoke about, I’m happy to be doing my best to live the dream as best I can, and I invite other white people to see what it’s like for you – not to just join the NAACP (It costs only $30!), but to choose to contribute by getting really involved, learning how to overcome the divisions and the racial conditioning that affect us all.
Lou Ann and I joined Lloyd and Terrie on a bus trip from Kankakee to Washington last month – the 50th Anniversary of the March. I’d gone to the original one. To me the highlight wasn’t the march; it was the opportunity to be with Lloyd and Terrie. We really enjoyed that time together.
Being on the board of the EALA, I’ve commented frequently about a paradox: We’re an all-white group of people working to overcome institutional racism which manifests itself in two ways – lack of equity and separation – apartheid – segregation. While our organization may have a future as a real force for racial justice, I believe each of us needs to do what we can to violate the norm of segregation in any way we can. I’m not sure what the organization can or needs to
do other than revise our bylaws to become more inclusive. The ADLA welcomed me as a member, and my African heritage goes WAY back! I believe that each of us has the opportunity to do something in our own life to engage in voluntary social integration with others who are willing to reciprocate. It’s not an obligation. But it is an action that can meet a need we all share.
When Stokely Carmichael told Joe Barndt to deal with the white people if he wanted to overcome racism, he was right. And if that’s all we do; if we don’t work to overcome racial oppression by being with people of color, we’re not really doing all we can do. The LGBT community has created a sea change in our society. I believe that an important aspect of that tremendous change in the sensibilities of millions is the fact that in thousands of schools in America there are Gay-Straight Alliances. If we want to move racial justice and equity forward more quickly, we need to learn from these young people – and learn how to combine cultural humility with connection.