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Dealing with racism: No Big Thing really

By Eddie Bell

It wasn't long after my previous article, "Blacks see racism daily," appeared in the Sunday Record that I realized that I had more to say on the subject. I felt an obligation to express my thoughts about the business of deal­ing with racism.

Although I put this notion aside for about three months, two things happened that pushed me to return to the subject of racism. First, I attended the recent joint concert of Ars Choralis of Woodstock and the United Voices Choir of Riverview Missionary Baptist Church of Kingston; and sec­ond, as I was driving down Albany Post road in New Paltz, I saw the woman, let's call her Aunt Callie, who used to babysit my daughter years ago.

Ars Choralis, a mostly white choral group, chose to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King by presenting a benefit concert at Maverick Concert Ball (Woodstock) for the rebuilding of the Riverview Baptist Church, damaged by an arson fire in 1996. The following excerpt from the concert program, “May we all be moved to honor the dream through a rededication of our lives to the principles of justice and brotherhood..." was an emphatic state­ment against racism: But I've seen such statements before and I must con­fess though I appreciated the sentiment of the evening and the financial support forthcoming to Riverview (my church home), I did not anticipate being moved. In fact my wife intimated to me we took our seats in the rear of the eater, "If Pastor Hardin and United Voices can reach this audience," which seemed staid, "I'll be surprised."

What followed soon after changed my mind. Ars Choralis moved beautifully through their part of the concert, supported by the engaging voice of Sandy Lomax, "a renowned (African American) jazz stylist." Then Reverend Hardin and the United Voices Choir, steeped in the southern black Baptist tradition, took their turn on stage. The reverend lost no time in telling the audience that they were about to partic­ipate in a "worship experience." Rev Hardin later said to me, "We had church tonight." The predominantly white audience responded to his call and the rousing gospel music by fre­quently rising to their feet during the singing. It also rewarded the choir with vigorous standing ovations. I've observed this reaction before, and though I was having a good time and pleasantly surprised that my wife was wrong in her doubt, l was still not moved.

Then something happened. Reverend Hardin introduced the choir's final selection, "The Jesus In Me Loves the Jesus In You," and as the choir was singing, they left the stage and mingled with the audience. In the following moments, the impediments of race and culture disappeared and the choir became one with the audience. Voices mingled, hugs abounded and this moment of harmony was so real it could not only be seen in the eyes of the people, it could be felt as well. I was finally moved!

This happening, of course, was not a pronouncement that everything is right with the world, but it is one more bit of evidence that diverse cultures and races can mix with one another and share moments of true affection. It was the antithesis of racism. I came away thinking that the practice of racism is the dying gasp of bigots and that it pales in comparison with the power of just human beings who really believe, "that all men are created equal." Some in the audience probably came to the concert out of curiosity, and some because they anticipated the music and wanted to be entertained. The people that stayed well beyond the end of the concert and participated in the culmi­nating agape love experience, did so because they were comfortable sharing a pleasant moment with a neighbor.

The casual sighting of my daughter's former babvsitter was what I have just described, but it reminded me that it was possible for a white woman to "mother" black chil­dren (she cared for other black children too) as naturally as she would her own. It was also natural for the little black children to feel at ease addressing a white woman as "Aunt."

So after these occurrences, I revisited my thoughts on racism and realized that before I could bring a fresh per­spective to the discussion, it would be necessary for me to separate the con­cept of racism from the practice of racial discrimination. By doing so, I was then able to discern that racism is an attitude or ingrained personal philosophy, and as such, is nearly impossible to alter in an adult person. It also helped me to deduce that the group struggle is more properly waged against racial dis­crimination (prejudicial/unlawful treat­ment based on skin color and ethnicity), and not against people's attitudes or beliefs, the battle against racism is best waged in the classroom and in houses of worship.

With this understanding, I can feel comfortable dealing with people on an individual level and step around the racists who place themselves in my way. In fact I can treat racists the same way that I treat mosquitoes: stay as far away from the pests as possible, but when they bite, scratch the bump when it itches and "keep gett'n up."

Most of my African American col­leagues, friends and associates who have succeeded in their careers have done so by pursuing education, taking advantage of opportunities and by forming eclectic relationships with well­-meaning folk among their own race and in the dominant society. They did not empower racism by letting it discour­age them, or give them reason to fail. Conversely, they recognized racism as one of the many obstacles that they had to face on the way up; and in the same way as they approached these other obstacles, they found a way to contra­dict racism's influence.

I believe that on an individual level the majority of people deplore racism or at least do not want to be identified with it.

I have always learned by personal experiences gained through my military career, in graduate school, dur­ing my career as an educator, and most recently as a professional writer. I have always found (or they have found me) whites who have supported me and thus helped me to achieve. The racists who have insulted me or tried to hold me back, have been few in number in comparison.

The realization that the racists in my life have been outnumbered makes it possible for me to judge white people on their individual merits (the sarne way I judge black people). I try very hard not to let the evil perpetrated by white racists and bigots to affect my relationships with white people who have vastly different motivations. "To keep it real," as the young people say, I find ways to deal with seething anger resulting from incidents like the lynch­ing of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas, by white supremacist or the indescrib­able tragedy of the white mobs' burning of Rosewood, a former all-black town in Florida; and still maintain my ability to recognize the good in most of the white people that I encounter on a personal level.

So while I will continue to fight the abhorrent practice racial discrimina­tion and racial exclusion; and while I continue to work for the education and elevation of black people, I will not be consumed with worry about racism. It is more important for me to dissuade black young men and women from allowing the racist views held by others to become an excuse for failing to live up to their God-given potential. They, and the rest of us, need to understand that we only empower racism, and therefore the racists who practice it, when we give their cause equal billing with the efforts of people who are try­ing to do the right thing. As my brother Carl so aptly says, "Of the problems facing Blacks (lack of education, crimes of violence, unemployment, teenage pregnancy), racism is barely in the top ten."

Eddie Bell is a freelance writer living in New Paltz
The Times Herald-Record     Saturday, July 18, 1998