Like many whites, Bill Wynne was surrounded by whiteness from birth, with hardly any exposure to racial diversity. It blinded him for years, he says, and sustained his obliviousness about others.
It’s no excuse, Wynne concedes, but he wasn’t informed or vested in learning more at the time. A retired telecom executive who also is known for his work in the nonprofit sector, Wynne has since educated himself and is a staunch advocate for racial and social justice. He shares his story through a recently published memoir, “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist.”
All net proceeds from the sale of the book will be directed to the Wynne-Strauss Fund for Social and Racial Justice managed by the Rochester Area Community Foundation. The fund supports initiatives that advance social justice with a special focus on racial justice and the belief that every human being has worth and is entitled to dignity, Wynne says.
“For Black readers, this may come as somewhat of a surprise since they have always been controlled by whites and associated systems; so, this might lead them to think we (whites) knew/know what we are doing,” Wynne, says of his book. “At least in my case this was the situation and when I retold my story to a Black friend, she was greatly surprised by the degree of my/our unknowingness and how that might lead to actual ‘fear of the unknown.’ This contrasts mightily with the fear that Blacks legitimately have of white institutions such as the criminal justice system.”
Wynne, who was raised Catholic and received a Catholic education, penned his story to offer guidance and hope, drawing on writings and reflections of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and spiritual writer. He points to a recent Rohr quote that gives him hope: “We do not need to minimize or overlook the pain and tragedy we encounter as we live in this time of interwoven crises. Eventually, when we recognize that the pain is directly connected with our love, we can embrace it. We can move into actions of restoration that are firmly planted in love.”
“It is in discussing quotes similar to this in the book that provide me guidance and hope,” Wynne says. “And I ‘hope’ that I provided a hopeful perspective of my long journey to enlightenment that any reader might be able to identify with in some way or discover something they did not know about themselves.”
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Wynne. His responses are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Why did you decide to document your journey?
BILL WYNNE: Although I never had an urge to write a book, circumstances converged in early-mid 2020 that gave rise to that possibility, together with a feeling of some urgency. These included the COVID health and death disparities being experienced within the minority, “essential worker” demographic; the Mr. George Floyd murder and resulting Black Lives Matter protests; the local police killing of Mr. Daniel Prude; and many more racist incidents too numerous to mention. In combination, these all came together to prick my conscience that I could not be silent, and my increasing awareness of the inherent, prevalent, and insidious racism in our midst combined with my evolving antiracism activism aroused in me a feeling that I should share some of my views with those close to me. I received one response which was positive, but for the most part my observations were met with silence and two were very negative, and that’s putting it mildly.
One of the conclusions I drew out of this was that most of them did not know anything about how my life’s journey drew me to this point. About the same time three close friends, two Black and one white, one of my brothers, and our youngest son were encouraging me to write my story of how I came to “understand and combat racism.” So, I became increasingly intentional about writing a memoir with two key focus points providing the inspiration: First, to demonstrate what oneperson can do vs. attempting to answer the question of “but what can one person do?”—a question I was routinely being asked. Second, to provide a legacy statement for my children and grandchildren that not only might help them understand the journey I was on, but more importantly perhaps, provide some guidance in their lives. Within our youth resides the true hope of turning the tide a bit on our over 400-year racist history!
ROCHESTER BEACON: The book jacket says you found yourself to be “educated but untaught, involved but unknowing…” How did realizations such as these move you to become involved in racial and social justice issues and what did you learn along the way?
WYNNE: There were a variety of ways I reached the realization of being “untaught” and “unknowing” … and that continue to provide enlightenment. The most important was the development of a several Black friendships in the 2014-18 period, and as circumstance would have it, especially with three Black, faith-filled women that have resulted in enduring relationships to this day. Integrating their insights together with much reading, learning Black and Native American history, attending and participating in many social and racial justice programs, all conspired to move my heart, body, mind, and soul to become more activist-oriented and not to be complicit through frozenness or silence.
There was a key point in early 2019 when another very good friend of mine more or less challenged me to utilize my growing insight in a much more participative way. Due to a timely spiritual experience that same day, literally within the next 24 hours an idea came to mind to further integrate this newfound learning into my overall network, especially as related to my previous business and professional experience. Specifically, I began to explore with the top level of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce ways to expand its participation with the complex issues associated with the Rochester City School District. This conversation did not result in too much, if anything, happening, but it served to heighten my activist spirit and know that the path I was on was (and continues to be) very challenging. Essentially, I learned that resilience is key to sustaining hope … similar to the model of the Black experience in this country going back centuries that I continue to regularly reflect on for inspiration and guidance.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Some believe efforts to encourage antiracism divide, rather than unite. Given your experience, what would you say to them?
WYNNE: First of all, and to be direct, this is a very “white”-oriented question. From my own point of view and personal experience, the “some” refers primarily to many whites. I believe that the vast majority of Blacks would deny the premise of the question that antiracism encouragement divides versus unites, and I think would look at that thought as providing yet another signal of how “some” whites continue to throw roadblocks onto true dialogue and authentic antiracism progress. Ibram X. Kendi, in his book “How to Be an Antiracist,” states on the cover: “Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and reenergizes the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.” I would highly recommend his book since it arguably is the manifesto on the topic. A well-known scripture also expresses my hope for uniting vs. dividing very simply and paraphrased as follows: “Unity is created out of diversity” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
Another point I’ll make related to this question goes back to the previous one about how I was educated. Currently there is another concept I believe being tossed about by “some” to sow confusion, doubt, and division; namely, critical race theory. Space doesn’t allow me to get too deeply into this, but suffice it to say that there is a big difference in teaching “theory” vs. the true history about this country’s racist past. Teaching this history will provide a flashlight on the path to unity.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Acknowledging systemic racism hasn’t been an easy task for Rochester and communities across the nation. How can we as a community restore trust and come together to achieve progress?
WYNNE: This is a very important question for many reasons and in the last chapter of my memoir I list a number of my personal, ongoing commitments that I believe can contribute to restoring trust and achieving progress. Over the years in our community there have been many racism-oriented initiatives and programs identified by slogans and acronyms too numerous to mention; the smell of burning rubber permeates the air around us with the lack of anything close to significant movement. Essentially, our community has to make a commitment towards making “progress on progress!” But the corporate, institutional and individual will has to be found because in my opinion it simply has not been discovered to the depths it should. The Rochester area was highlighted recently in the New York Times about the ongoing racism issues in Pittsford; a few months previous, there was another NYT article about the historical problems associated with Black business development in Rochester. When will we finally step up as a “Greater Rochester Community” and actively discuss and confront these embarrassing articles and related issues among ourselves? A few ideas premised on my previous responses:
■ Education is key; racism/antiracism continuing education development should be emphatically embraced and promoted by our many local colleges and universities
■ Faith communities of all denominations must step up their “game” and related organizations have to come out of the shadows more so whites can truly see them.
■ Who are the new Joe Wilsons (the Xerox CEO in the ‘60s) in our midst that can inspire the business community and get it out of its apathetic indifference to the abundant racism and poverty all around us, especially associated with our children, the future hope?
■ Nonprofits have a huge responsibility as well in this space and with younger leadership transitioning in and taking over from the boomer generation. There are abundant opportunities to take the baton firmly from their predecessors, who left a lot of work still to be done.
■ Read Heather McGhee’s new book, “The Sum of Us,” for validation since Rochester is not alone. There are 14-15 other cities she mentions in the section titled the “Solidarity Dividend” that are seemingly moving beyond their never ending “quacking” about doing something about curbing racism; why not Rochester too?
■ Lastly, whites have to do more listening, allow a bigger table, and let the “others” lead.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.