Learning from reactions to ‘Understanding and Combating Racism’

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A little over a year ago, my book “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist” was published. Since then, I have presented either in person or via Zoom to hundreds of people; the blog posts on my website have been read by untold thousands; and the book is in circulation throughout the local library systems and perhaps others.

Bill Wynne

In the dozens of programs, interviews, book signings, and discussions I’ve had about my memoir, I’ve typically framed any conversation speaking about the risks, rewards, unintended consequences, and new discoveries within my antiracism journey. The overwhelming positive reception I have received in discussing the difficult and challenging subject of the enduring racism in our midst has been very gratifying.

To be sure, there have been a few instances of being labeled or identified in unimaginable ways. These have been rare but impactful, depending on the source and circumstances; likewise, being shouted at for simply holding a Black Lives Matter sign and an American flag at a silent vigil on a street corner together with other likeminded people. However, the rewards of hundreds of cars honking in support far outweigh these infrequent encounters as well as the knowledge that no matter whether in support or shouting some retort, there has been recognition of a problem and perhaps an opening for individual reflection.

And, of course, any pain that I encountered cannot compare to the routine daily micro- and macro-aggressions that Blacks endure just because of the color of their skin.

Regarding new discoveries over the past year, several have provided guidance and inspiration for my ongoing work and the path I am on. As one example, I have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of respectful, deep listening. This is especially significant given that I am the one in control at any program podium or when writing my blog posts … plus further exacerbated by something I can’t control at all: namely, being an older, white male and the associated, common typecast characteristics!

Secondly, and in an attempt to not be easily offended and to keep my sense of humor as situations arise, I coined the term “FOWG-ies” or “Fragile Old White Guys” to portray the dominant personification of most of the negative reactions I have received about my book and associated work. Moral of the story: keep a sense of humor despite the challenging subject matter and don’t be easily offended!

But perhaps the key discovery—and I put it in the form of another term I use to explain the incredible depths of white supremacy or racism—is what I call “White Confoundedness.” I define WC as a toxic mix of many factors living within those who believe they are white. These include feelings of guilt, naivete, defensiveness, obliviousness, fear, anger, outrage, trauma, resistance to change, being ill-informed, avoidance of history, denial, silence, arrogance, and many others.

The best way to portray what I mean by this definition is to quote actual statements that people who believe they are white have said to me, such as:

■ “I had/have Black neighbors/friends/coworkers and I always got/get along with them.”

■ “I’ve been profiled too”; or “I’ve experienced ‘reverse racism’ in my job.”

■ “I’m afraid of _____” (there are an infinite array of possibilities).

■ “But what can one person do?”

■ “I don’t see color” or “I’m color blind”

Arguably the most confounding is “I know there’s racism but I don’t believe it,” and the person who said it even acknowledged that there was an inherent contradiction within those words. This is when I began to realize that the racism waters were murkier than I ever thought imaginable and have made me rethink the work I am trying to do.

But the worst thing is when there is nothing said at all and there’s just silence or a complete lack of any inquisitiveness.

I want to expand on the statement regarding being afraid. An initial question I would ask in response is, “So how do you think being fearful of ‘whatever’ impacts your daily life or basic freedoms?”

Pick your word or phrase of what you might be afraid of. To contrast those fears to the variety of fears and challenges that Blacks bear is something I have derived from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” His book is written in the form of a letter to his young Black son about Coates’ experiences living in America. In a mere 146 pages, the words “fear” or “afraid” are used 63 times in portraying the physical hazards of daily Black male life. For those who are not Black, there is literally no comparison whatsoever to either the daily fears and loss of freedom that Blacks experience even when just walking into a Starbucks in Philadelphia or bird watching in New York City’s Central Park, two actual, relatively recent examples.

I have compiled a list of what I believe triggers “WC” as well as some associated possible mitigation techniques that I discuss in my presentations. Suffice it to say that “WC” gets further complicated by external forces such as White Christian Nationalism, which basically is foundational to today’s White Supremacy political agenda. What follows from that is the variety of ways racism can be portrayed by some institutional, mainline Churches to their respective congregations, assuming they say anything at all from the pulpit or otherwise. No wonder those who believe they are white can get confounded so easily!

To conclude, I’d like to reflect back and refresh some of what I said last year in a Q&A with the Rochester Beacon’s Smriti Jacob as to how we as a community can be more trusting and come together to achieve racial progress.

I first want to reiterate that continuing education development regarding antiracism should be emphatically embraced and actively promoted by our many local colleges and universities. Likewise, leaders (especially white) of faith communities, affiliated organizations, and interfaith groups must step up their “game” so that there can be a deeper understanding of the evils of racism as well as provide support and encouragement for its eradication.

Regarding the business sector, who are the new “Joe Wilson’s” (the impactful Xerox CEO of the 1960s who joined forces with the influential Rev. Franklin Florence) that can inspire business leadership to act with redefined commitment and intentionality in addressing the disgraceful racism and poverty all around us, especially associated with our children, the future hope?

Nonprofits have a huge responsibility as well in the antiracism space with younger leadership such as Simeon Bannister of the Rochester Community Foundation taking the helm from the older “boomer” generation who have left a lot of work still to be done. And I cannot ignore our government leaders who must do a better job seeking and building the “common ground” among all their diverse constituencies and colleagues despite the many imposing challenges and political differences. We each must play a vital role in helping them with this work.

Lastly, and I believe most importantly, all of us who believe we are white have to do much more listening, invite deeper diversity to our respective “tables,” allow the “others” to lead, and take the necessary steps to move away from our racial confoundedness with radical and loving intentionality.

These are my ardent hopes for 2023 and beyond. I am grateful to the Beacon for the opportunity to share them.

Bill Wynne is author of: “Understanding and Combating Racism: My Path from Oblivious American to Evolving Activist.” He can be contacted through his website, wewynneauthor.com.

The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

11 thoughts on “Learning from reactions to ‘Understanding and Combating Racism’

  1. “Maybe you can convince your buddies at Rochester Beacon”? I believe that the Rochester Beacon does a stellar job at writing and allowing one to respond with an opinion and or fact. Period.

  2. I constantly need to correct my assumption that any racial, religious, ethnic, gender Etc. group is monolithic. It is too facile to address deeply rooted and complex social issues by categorizing people based on superficial criteria. I acknowledge that many, if not most, people subconsciously revert to ancient tribal stereotyping, “friend or foe, fight or flight” instincts that served our ancestors well. Virtually all people tend to congregate in groups of similar people, which I believe are manifestations of tribal identity, limiting the opportunity for acquiring a deeper understanding of “the other.”
    I concur that humans must make a conscious effort to interact with individuals before making any judgments. Education and the capacity to communicate effectively are crucial for any social mobility. The onus is on both parties to “flex” to bridge social, economic, or cultural divides.
    It’s unsurprising that within groups of similar skin color, there are divisions established by cohorts within the larger group. One example is that people with dark pigmentation separate themselves by things like if they are Caribbean, East or West African, Spanish Speaking, Middle Eastern, French Speaking, and on and on. Then there are economic and social silos that groups of people are put in. For example, I’m college educated, and you are not, or I’m a tradesman, and you are a professional, I live in the city, and you live in Pittsford. How are these groups created? Are they natural? Should we strive to make changes? Behavior and cultural norms are yet another factor that humans use to differentiate if someone belongs in one neighborhood or not.
    I’m not naïve that racism, sexism, and many other “isms” exist and are barriers to full membership in America’s “exceptionalism” club. I’m equally aware that any social contract needs to have give and take between the parties. I acknowledge that the following is the sentiment of an OWG, but it needs to be said. I’m a first-generation American. My Mother came here after being imprisoned in a NAZI concentration camp, and her family lost everything. It’s hard for me to accept responsibility or feel guilty for anything that happened to enslaved Black people many generations ago. I fully accept responsibility for how I behave and interact with everyone I interact with.
    Ideas like institutional racism, micro-aggression, implicit bias, and others that are popular these days may or may not apply to me. Holding up a mirror to see what other people see is impossible. I strive not to be condescending, hostile, or dismissive of anyone.
    Most people want the same thing at the most fundamental level. Maslow’s Hierarchy is (1) physiological (food and clothing), (2) safety (job security), (3) love and belonging needs (friendship), (4) esteem, and (5) self-actualization. I start with the assumption that everyone is a good person and values the same things I do so until their actions prove otherwise.
    Diversity is crucial for a community to remain resilient and thrive. New ideas are worth exploring, and we can all share the fruits of our collective success. As an OWG, I’ve seen generational change and believe we are on the appropriate path, but it will take several more generations to realize Dr. King’s dream. I’m also aware that my thinking and feeling may not be consistent with others. I’ve personally experienced and seen overt racism and hatred.
    Tragically, some politicians drive wedges between citizens to gain the support of disaffected groups of disenfranchised people who are not the mainstream but are vocal and angry. Grievance politics was successful and may yet destroy our democracy. We all need to hang on to the ideals of what unites us and makes us stronger. Change is happening too slowly, but it is happening. I wish we had more enlightened and effective leaders to help guide us on the path of enlightenment. All we can do is keep the issue in the awareness of our fellow citizens and hope they are paying attention.

  3. Howard, Sanford, Jim and perhaps others I missed … I appreciate all your comments. This antiracism work is extremely important and my learning continues.

    Thank you … Bill Wynne

  4. Greetings Bill,

    As you know, I count myself as being among your teachers, especially and particularly as it relates to anti-racism. Again, I was glad to see your book __ though I have not found the time to read it, mainly because I’ve been way too busy engaging in anti-racist WORK, aimed at impacting individual, institutional and structural racism (in concrete, significant, measurable, permanent ways __ in our lifetimes, as opposed to the distant, abstract bye-and-bye). Hopefully, I’ll get around to reading your book eventually.

    I did read your article at the link above, and to be honest and frank, in my humble, but unequivocally-staunch and respectful opinion, it’s wanting, especially regarding clarity. I have listed some of the most outstanding examples below:

    1) Are you really suggesting that people’s “recognition of [one of the white-supremacist-based USA’s oldest, most devastating, most volatile, potentially explosive socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural problems and issues] and perhaps an opening for individual reflection” __ is supposed to be lauded as ‘progress?’ I certainly hope not, not in almost 2023.

    2) What (exactly and specifically) is meant by “people who believe they are white?” Those who “believe they are white” ___ ARE __ period: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO8qdwggIdI . Being White IS a thing, and to posit theories that whiteness is not real, or doesn’t exist is potentially dangerous, and only adds to reductionist language and “anti-racist”-mess-making : http://minorityreporter.net/snake-oil-solutions-critique-of-novice-mess-makers-and-those-who-know-better/ .

    3) Speaking of reductionists language __ you “realize that the [so-called] racism waters [are so-called] murkier than [you] ever thought imaginable and have made [you] rethink the work [you’re] trying to do?” Really? “Rethink the work” in what specific ways, and what has your “rethinking” informed or led you to do differently???

    4) You mentioned that “last year [you TALKED about] how we as a community can be more trusting and come together to achieve racial progress.” Well, since that time (last year), how much “coming together as a community to achieve racial progress [and being] more trusting” have you witnessed??? Bill, it’s no longer acceptable for us to just make wild declarations about what we “must” do __ while at the same time __ NOTHING concrete, significant, measurable, sustainable/permanent changes. Such declarations end up amounting to nothing more, nor less than super-hyper, abstract, liberal rhetoric __ period. See two prime example below:

    a) “… leaders (especially white) of faith communities, affiliated organizations, and interfaith groups must step up their “game” so that there can be a deeper understanding of the evils of racism as well as provide support and encouragement for its eradication.” Right.

    b) “…government leaders must do a better job seeking and building the “common ground” among all their diverse constituencies and colleagues despite the many imposing challenges and political differences.” Right. As you know well, we’ve been hearing these types of empty declarations for many decades __ yet >>> https://wblk.com/rochester-ny-deemed-2nd-worst-place-for-african-americans-to-live-in-the-entire-u-s/

    5) Obviously, currently, there are no “new Joe Wilson’s (the impactful Xerox CEO of the 1960s who joined forces with the influential [Minister, NOT] Rev. Franklin Florence that can [or really WILL] inspire business leadership to act with redefined commitment and intentionality in addressing the disgraceful racism and poverty all around us.” It very well could be that it’s going to take the exact same types of actions that moved Mr. Wilson, in order for us to see people once again “act with redefined commitment and intentionality in addressing the disgraceful racism and poverty all around us.” This reality always makes me think about the slogan and book “The Fire Next Time,” which very well may be what’s required. By the way, Joe Wilson is gone. However, Minister Franklin D. Florence Sr. is still with us, and here’s an article from 2018 ( https://www.rochestercitynewspaper.com/rochester/franklin-florence-on-rochester-and-racism-little-has-changed/Content?oid=8130388 ), which reflects his continued thinking. If we ask him today (12/6/22) about the information contained in the article, I am absolutely certain that he WILL tell us __”When people won’t come around, you have to make it uncomfortable for them. But you also have to be willing to pay the price.”

    Maybe you can convince your buddies at Rochester Beacon to do a story on the Minister, e.g. contact him, and ask his thinking regarding this vitally important, historic, issue and problem. If you need contact information, I can help.

  5. Great column! One thing left unsaid, however, is the necessity to start the anti-racist intervention from day one with our children in order to eradicate generations of prejudice and implicit (and explicit) bias. A good first step would be to break down the barriers created by our de facto segregated school systems and educate our teachers and administrators in DEI. In that poignant song from “South Pacific” about racism points out in the dichotomy of learning or fighting racism, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”!

      • I know my responding is a trap, but that be what it may…..I just have to respond, not so much to the subject matter but the methodology used to address it and resolve it. That goes for any societal problem. Language, word usage to the degree that very few understand it, will even read it, doesn’t get the job done. I have taken a different approach. I have been, tactfully and in plain English, trying to address the foundational issue….thee foundational issue…. of a small part of the Rochester Community. That foundational issue is EDUCATION. (I believe most of those responding here have a certificate of sorts, maybe more, on their office wall) The RCSD has failed this community for decades. Not the teachers, not the even the kids, SYSTEM failure at its core. That’s undeniable and clearly visible in the statistics. (That said, statistics have been my friend throughout my professional career because you make make them “dance” to any tune.)

        I sat in on one of the committees that was associated with East High School’s partnership with the University of Rochester. Has this effort been successful? I would say, to a degree. Why has it not been replicated throughout the entire RCSD? Can’t answer that. Money? Maybe. But one thing is sure, educational equity is missing in the RCSD.

        OK, moving on with this education thing….ALL kids have innate skills and or gifts. For those who sort of read over things, you know, scan them but it doesn’t really register…….ALL kids have innate skills and gifts. The mission of the K-12 journey is to allow the students to discover those gifts/Innate skills. You do that by showing them professions and careers. ( I have a fully developed presentation on the, how this can be accomplished) If I can bring it down a notch in my attempt to point this out….it’s show and tell by those who have discovered their path in life. The student can then identify with a particular demonstrated profession or career and can now understand the reason and purpose for those perceived “boring academics”. (by the way the number one question asked by drop-outs is……”what do I need this S— for anyway?”) The very individuals who are dropping out are giving the educators the answer!! So….show them why!! The RCSD system needs to change, period. What happens when kids earn an education is that they take that interest and either gain a living wage job or go on to expand (College/University/certificate program) on their career/profession of choice. That gives them CHOICE in life. That results in opportunity to work where one wants, to live where one wants and to raise a family and pass that process on to them. Now I can hear it already……but-but-but. No but’s, if’s or other wise. While that will not solve all the societal problems, it is undeniably a positive…..a positive step in anyone’s life direction. I have been at this for 14 years. Trying to explain the simplicity of getting an education and making something of ones self. Oh,….I know, you must have gone to a private school, you know those schools set aside for the few in high places. Ah…nope. I attended Edison Technical and Industrial High School in 1961-65. Two busses to school and two home and perfect attendance for all four years. Why? Because I loved learning with a purpose. Edison Tech, a GREAT school in its time systematically destroyed by the RCSD educational “experts”. That school was the CROWN JEWEL of the RCSD. Destroyed. That destruction has affected thousands and denied opportunity.

        So my mission, still today, after 60 years, is to address the failing school system in a community riddled with drop outs, drugs, teenage pregnancy, crime and generational poverty. It does NOT have to be this way. It can be addressed, it must be addressed. Statements including “When people don’t come around you have to make it uncomfortable for them” aint gonna get the job done. Or…maybe I should invoke that philosophy in my effort the teach the way kids learn? Nah…maybe not.
        Semper Fi.

  6. Great piece. My Grandson and I read Coates ” Between The World and Me” and I am so glad we did. Though much shorter, I immediately thought of James Baldwin’s ” Letter to His Nephew,’ of many years ago. Thanks for you work and perspective.

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