Forum tackles race relations
- Published: February 19, 2015
About 15 years ago in Knoxville, Tenn., Opolot Okia was riding his bicycle past the daycare where his son was playing with other kids in the school yard. He stopped to say hello, intentionally staying on the road away from the fence to avoid any cause for alarm. A teacher saw him and called the police. Okia is a 6-foot, 7-inch black man. And that experience of being racially profiled was neither the first nor the last for him, he said in a recent interview.
Okia, now a history professor at Wright State University, and his wife, Simeon, share these kinds of stories with their 17-year-old son Oluka. The family moved to Yellow Springs five years ago partly because of its liberal culture of acceptance, but they want to prepare their child for the discrimination that he is likely to face as a tall black male. It has already happened in Yellow Springs, which worries Simeon, especially in the context of last year’s high profile police shootings of black males, including John Crawford III, who was shot by police while shopping at the Beavercreek Walmart last August.
“I’m always telling Oluka, just be careful, because if you’re with your friends, it’s two white friends and you, if there’s something going on that could be illegal, leave, just leave the situation because you will be the person that’s seen as the bad one,” she said.
In the midst of the public uproar over last year’s shootings, many local parents came to Mills Lawn guidance counselor John Gudgel to ask about how they should talk to their children about issues of race and discrimination — in order to keep them safe. As the chairperson of the 365 Project, a group that facilitates discussions about race issues in the village, Gudgel noted that it had been several years since the village had a “courageous conversation” about race and wanted to sponsor one for both adults and youth.
Consequently, the 365 Project will host “A discussion on Mixed Race and Other Stuff” on Saturday, Feb. 21, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Mills Lawn School.
The discussion will be broken into groups of about 10 people that will each focus on three topics, including, 1) Talking with your children about police violence that is perpetuated towards people of color 2) How as parents/caregivers can we deal with identity issues in bi-racial and multi-cultural families? 3) How can we promote self-esteem for African-American children and the historical importance of African-Americans in America?
As a 10-year-old, Malcolm Blunt has had many conversations with his parents about the risks with police. His parents, Toylin Blunt, a Yellow Springs Police dispatcher, and Basim Blunt, a news producer for WYSO Public Radio, have had many positive experiences with police officers. But they also know that it only takes one bad officer to end an innocent life, and they want their son to be fully aware of the increased risk for him. They tell him not to carry a toy gun, for instance, and to follow the law by wearing his seatbelt.
“As the mother of a black male, it’s a hard thing to worry when your child goes out of the house … not only your son but your husband,” Toylin said. “I’m afraid of how they will be interpreted — how will they be seen; will they be seen as a threat? I’m in law enforcement and when I hear ‘they stopped a black male,’ I think, is it an officer that does see race or is it an officer that doesn’t see race? That’s a lot to process; it’s a lot to think about.”
Local resident Isis Henderson feels the police keep a closer eye on her as a black woman as well. She’s been stopped by the police in Los Angeles, where she grew up, and in Yellow Springs several times for no reason. The Blunts jokingly call that the “black tax,” but they take it seriously because they know if it gets all the way to court, it could turn out ugly.
Discussions for the Okia family have been not only necessary but unavoidable. Just as Opolot experienced discrimination, so has his son begun to have similar experiences. Recently a white friend of his was flying a remote control airplane at Antioch College and got it stuck on the theater building roof. Oluka came to help him retreive it. As Oluka was walking home from campus, an officer, who had been alerted by college security about a “black male on campus,” stopped him and asked him what he was doing.
“He had already talked to my friend, so he knew what had happened,” Oluka said about the officer. “And I was standing back because I knew they thought I might be part of this.”
All three families felt that to ignore the existence of discrimination was to deny the experiences of African Americans and people of color. The only way to move beyond it, they said, was to acknowledge it, point it out when it happens and keep talking about it.
“It is hard to bring up, it is a touchy subject, but it is one that needs to be talked about because at this point we’re talking about life and death situations, and if we don’t talk about them, it will continue,” Toylin said. “The fear won’t lessen if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t go back in the schools, if we don’t bring in cultural stores and museums and talk about that stuff. And Yellow Springs is an awesome place to start that dialogue because there’s so many diverse people — we may not agree on it, but we can talk about it.”
These discussions are not all negative, though, and the Blunts spend plenty of time talking to their kids about the strong historic figures in African and African-American history. According to Malcolm, every time they get in the car, in fact, the first person to buckle their seatbelt gets to name their top three black heroes.
“Mine are Malcolm X (like my name), Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson,” he said.
The Blunts also celebrate Kwanzaa and read books about and by African Americans. Recently they requested more Afro-centric reading for the Mills Lawn Library, and the school responded immediately by ordering all the books on their list, plus more.
“It was great … !” Basim said.
Henderson grew up in a white school, but got a huge amount of support from her mother, who taught her she deserved to be there just as much as any white kid. Oluka agreed, saying that his parents have instilled the value of education and academic achievement.
“My parents taught me to do the best I can. My parents put confidence in me, and now I have my own confidence,” he said.
The positive models and race conversations both should continue beyond Black History Month and next week’s discussion, Gudgel said. The 365 Project organizers, including co-founder Joan Chappelle, Treasurer Kevin McGruder, and 30-some members, would like to see the conversations on race continue in the civic and educational arenas with support from groups such as the Village Human Relations Commission, African American Culture Works and the schools. They would like to see elders mentoring youth, guidance for parents who are interested and sustained energy devoted to bringing about a more truly inclusive and diverse community.
“There is not a robust African-American community like we had 20 years ago in Yellow Springs — that’s a concern to a lot of people,” Gudgel said.
An audio interview with the three families can be heard this weekend at ysnews.com.