To change things requires action
Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
My friend and colleague, Joe, was late for an editors’ meeting we were attending at an Indiana state park. “I didn’t think they were going to let me in,” he said when he joined our group. I thought he was joking; he’s one of those guys with a great sense of humor. This was no joke. Joe has ancestors from the Middle East, and it’s easy to see it in his olive skin and black hair.
This incident occurred in the early months post-9/11. That date changed not just life as Americans knew it, but gave rise to great distrust and unease regarding people who had any connection whatsoever to Iran or Iraq or any country in that part of the globe for that matter.
Why am I beating around the bush here? Why not just call it what it is? It wasn’t distrust or unease. It was racism, and my friend was a victim.
The prosecuting attorney in the town where I was editor irked a lot of people with how he handled a case. That newspaper’s version of Live Wire was the Town Crier. The attorney was ridiculed in the column, and not for his professional performance. “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” sputtered one outraged caller.
The thing is, he was exactly where he came from. This attorney was practicing law in the same town in which he had spent his entire life. His mother, however, was a native of South Korea, and he had many of her physical features.
It’s another clear-cut example of racism.
I am a Harrison County native. I am proud of that and love my hometown. What I don’t love are the deep-seated prejudices that infect far too many of us here.
Like so many of you, I grew up hearing the neighborhood near the old Harrison County Hospital referred to as N-hill. It was a common reference.
I grew up hearing my older (well, sometimes not so old) relatives describing black Americans in very stereotypical and terrible terms.
My saving grace was the decision to move away for college. Franklin College, where I studied two years, and Indiana University, from which I graduated, may not be geographically distant, but, in terms of culture, they are worlds away.
College exposed me to many different types of people, many different cultures, many different belief systems and many different lifestyles. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience that showed me what I’d been taught (in theory if not in practice) was true: that all men are created equal, that God loves us all.
My choice of majors — English and journalism — were instrumental in opening my mind and heart. Reading classics such as “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Bluest Eye,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and, more recently, “The Help,” enlightened me. They helped me understand how differently life could be for two people living in seemingly the same country, the same town even.
It can be as different as living on a whole different planet.
In the late ’60s, just before I was born, the Civil Rights movement ended legal segregation. That didn’t end racism.
In 1992, I sat transfixed in front of the TV watching the Los Angeles riots following the beating of Rodney King. That didn’t end racism.
Today, we’ve watched as protests and demonstrations have spread far beyond our shores in response to police brutality against black men and women. No matter what laws or policies are passed, it won’t end racism.
Matters of the heart can’t be changed with the swish of a signature on paper. As the line from the Eagles’ song “The Sad Café” goes, “Things in this life change very slowly if they ever change at all.”
That’s a lyric that’s never left me. I’ve thought about it in relation to many frustrating situations I’ve encountered through the years, things I wanted to change immediately but couldn’t.
Here’s the thing: If we never educate ourselves, if we never reach out, if we never attempt to walk a mile in another man’s moccasins, if we never try to learn what life is like for others, well, things won’t change.
While I took the racist Town Crier caller to task in an editorial, I did nothing in response to my friend Joe’s racist encounter. What I’ve learned from today’s protests is that not being racist isn’t enough. You have to put your money where your mouth is.
It’s up to each of us to take a stand. If not to attend a rally and hold up a sign, to speak up when Uncle Joe pops off with a bad “joke.” To speak up in defense of our friends who are treated differently because of the color of their skin or their accent. To disagree when someone starts railing about “those” people.
No, it’s not easy. It takes guts and it may strain relationships. But, if we expect things to really start to change, these steps are the only way to make sure that happens.
“The Sad Café” also says, “We thought we could change this world / With words like ‘love’ and ‘freedom’.” Those words by themselves won’t change anything. Those words, backed up with action, have the power to change everything.