As we watch nation-wide demonstrations demanding justice for the latest in a series of unarmed black men killed by police, it’s easy to say “Racism isn’t our problem. We live in Shiawassee County. It’s a non-issue and we’re not involved.”
At one time that was probably true. My grandfather was born in 1883, just 18 years after the end of the Civil War, and his father was born in 1844, 20 years before that war began. Both were farmers in Shiawassee County, and I doubt that either of them had occasion to cross paths with a single person whose skin was black.
For them it was a non-issue.
Some of my ancestors moved here from Ireland during the potato famine. They weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, but over the years their descendants lost the Irish accent and were assimilated, blended in with their community. They were no longer the “other.”
Needless to say, the Africans brought to our shores in slave ships (long before my ancestors arrived) weren’t made welcome either, except as property. Though freed from slavery by the 13th Amendment and declared citizens by the 14th, they didn’t just step off the plantation and establish businesses, go to college, climb the social ladder and vote for the next president. Reconstruction was a long, difficult and largely unsuccessful process.
For them, assimilation is quite another matter because regardless of the level of education or business success or social status, a person born with black skin is always going to be black. And therein can lie the perception of being different, dangerous, “less than.” Different promotes fear and fear becomes hate.
We don’t live in a vacuum; my grandfathers’ world is long gone. Although we may not see evidence of racism in our area, words and attitudes matter because our children are watching and listening.
Growing up with playmates of color isn’t the norm for kids in our community, so it’s up to us to teach them, by word and example, that they live in a big and diverse world where everyone has value regardless of the color of their skin.
Kathy Olund, Durand