Members of the Oberlin community discuss racism and the murder of George Floyd
Special feature from the Spring 2021 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine
By Yvonne Gay & Marsha Lynn Bragg
Illustrations by Noa Denmon
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black father of two, was detained by Minneapolis police on suspicion of passing a counterfeit bill. Within 9 minutes and 29 seconds, he was dead on the pavement after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while Floyd cried out for his deceased mother. The incident, captured on video, rallied people by the tens of thousands—in the United States and abroad—who risked contracting the coronavirus to march for racial justice. They shouted the names of other murdered Black men and women, and took a knee in their honor. They vowed not to forget this moment.
For some, Floyd’s murder was a shock that raised awareness about injustices and the day-to-day racism that Black, brown, and other people of color face. Others did not need a reminder.
A number of people in Oberlin’s Black community—faculty, staff, and alumni—were invited to share their own experiences of racial injustice, outrage, the murder of George Floyd, the world’s response, and whether this moment will be different. Here are selections from their responses.
So many things went through my mind [when Mr. Floyd was murdered]. One was the larger picture of how cheap Black life has always been in this country. As a human being, you’re thoroughly shocked that another human being, anyone, but especially someone in authority and who is sworn to serve us and who is paid by us, intentionally, for nine minutes, suffocates someone and is kneeling there with a smile on his face. It was the look of a hunter who has killed prey. It was the look of triumph. There’s no remorse there. There is no, ‘I’m not sure what I’m doing,’ there. There is much intentionality, malice, and triumphant joy in doing it. And for me that signals something we’ve known for centuries—what I think white people sometimes don’t realize—is that Black people have been constructed as not being human at all, beginning with our capture and enslavement. I don’t think that construction has significantly changed at all. Black people, Black men in particular, have been constructed as dangerous animals to be taken down. And in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, literally hunted.
Then we add on to that transgender people constructed as not being people. And what that does is, it gives permission. There’s a history in our race morals where there has been a national consciousness that the dehumanization of Black people is a problem that the nation needs to respond to. That has always been temporary. And it’s always been a tiny number of people, like abolition, Civil Rights, the Black Power [movement]. But it’s never been the majority. There has never been a national groundswell. There has never been a national statement of the realities of this history. It drives me insane. People will say things like, ‘Well, slavery was a long time ago. We aren’t responsible for it. It’s in the past.’ At the same time, you can say, well, the Declaration of Independence is in the past. So which past do you want to honor? It’s cherry picking. In addition, what’s cherry picked becomes an effort to put the nation on a pedestal and so everything looks perfect. And there is no confession or atonement.
It does remind me of what happened during the Civil Rights movement and dogs and fire hoses on children, teenagers, men and women: People saw it. Here’s the thing, they literally had to see it to even begin to understand. And normally, as we know, people literally don’t see the murder and harassment of Black people. I had something happen a few years ago where it was a mixed group of professional people, and something happened where a white male walked up to me and said, ‘Now I know what microaggression is.’ Because he literally saw it and heard it…Black people aren’t making this stuff up, it really happens and, look, it happens among a bunch of professional people. People don’t educate themselves out of their racism and their racist constructions. So it’s not as if there’s some arena in American society that is innocent of these constructions, but I think what happened with the murder and those nine minutes is that perhaps a significant number of white people saw that nine minutes realized clearly it was murder. And, it became more difficult for them to try to construct some alternative story and some alternative universe of, ‘The policeman’s life was in danger.’ There was no alternative story, this was murder. And I do appreciate in most of the news media and most of the people I hear talk about [this] will say, ‘murder.’ They don’t say, ‘the incident.’ They don’t say ‘his death’ as if it was an accident. That to me signals a change.
The important thing to say to white people who ask, ‘How do you feel?’ is to ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Do you as a human being on this planet take a pass on men, women, and children being mowed down by civic authority? Is it forgettable for you? Will you, a year from now say, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember something happened?’ Or, do you experience a level of empathy where you say, as all [Black people] said, ‘This is my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my child.’
In part, many whites have constructed, ‘well, this wouldn’t happen to the highly educated Black people I know’—the idea that there’s these Black people and those Black people—and we know that’s a lie. Whites will play these mind games where somehow, they can construct a world that’s okay, when it’s not okay. It really doesn’t matter what somebody’s job was or what neighborhood they lived in, this was our family who was mowed down. Because we know at any second of any day anywhere in the United States of America it could be any and every Black person we know, including us.
I can hear my mother’s voice. I am 5. I can see us standing near the door in her bedroom. I’m looking up into her face when she says, ‘Lillie, you can look anyone straight in the eye when you’re talking to them, even the president of the United States.’ I’ve never forgotten that. And I know at that time I had no idea what that meant. But she was so serious. But I know my little 5-year-old brain was saying, you better keep this.
I think Black students need the history and culture that becomes part of their resilience because it’s so affirming of the worst of the circumstances and the best of human response. It says, look what human beings can do under the worst of circumstances. The second thing it should do—and it’s a touchy subject for me—and that is, this is not the 19-teens. I am not living in my parents and great grandparent’s time. When I think about what they went through, I feel empowered. If my parents were able to send three daughters to college and help other relatives, what does that say about me, my husband and our household about what we should be doing? What obligation do I have, in this context? The thing I don’t want young people or anyone to ever say, ‘Things haven’t changed.’ Because I grew up in Columbus, Georgia, born in 1952. Muscogee County just voted for Biden by a huge percentage—who are these people?! These are not the people I grew up with! Things have changed, and they’ve changed because Black people have paid the price for that change. What has not changed is a national mentality about the humanity of Black people.
Black people’s murdered bodies should not have to be the path to national truth-telling. The price is too high, but will this horror give birth to a transformative truth and reconciliation for America?
Lillie Edwards ’75
In this moment of ‘white wokeness,’ I find that I am deeply and profoundly unimpressed. Not that I’m altogether resistant to the idea, but I think had white people been able to go about their usual business during a global pandemic, I wonder if the image of George Floyd being suffocated would even have piqued their curiosity. It occurs to me that what these newly politicized white protesters may not have thought about are the mobs of angry white extremists whose anger outstrips any outrage found among Black Lives Matter protesters, [mobs] whose belief that white people need to retain their place at the top of the U.S. caste hierarchy burns as bright as a lodestar. As a dear friend of mine put it, ‘From this point on, the only white wokeness that counts is going to [involve] facing off against white folks who are fighting for racism and fascism.’
Herman Beavers ’81
I’m not entirely certain this moment in time is important, because in this moment, the movement that I’ve seen has primarily been driven by pop culture and is relatively content-free. A groundswell of anti-racist posts on Facebook and Twitter is indicative of where popular opinion lies currently and also is utterly without meaning in practicality, because it requires no actual effort or investment other than the typing of a minimal number of computer characters (140 or less).
I have a vivid recollection as a young teenager of playing basketball on a court outside a friend’s apartment and being told by police that we had to leave when a group of much younger white children decided they wanted to skateboard on the court. They complained to the police when we continued playing our game because we were in their way. Although my friend actually lived at the housing complex and these younger white kids did not, the police cursed at us and told us to leave. I was very fortunate in that it was not until I was living in Boston for college that I actually heard a white person use the N-word. It was so shocking, unexpected, and ridiculous, given our power differential, that I actually just laughed at him. He was a bus driver for the public transportation system, ferrying me to class at an Ivy League institution.
Was there a point in your life when was outraged by how Black people and others were being treated?
This would be my current point, and most points previous to this one.
I am additionally continually outraged, as well, by the treatment of disempowered Black people by an unfortunate contingent of Black people, primarily self-interested, who are able to manipulate the levers of power and elevate themselves into positions that allow them to control gateways and access to resources for the larger group. I hesitate to confess that a slight majority of empowered African-Americans in positions of power whom I’ve encountered fall into this group. The real issue at hand is the appeal of chauvinism and egocentricity; empowered white people indulge themselves in these ways more often than members of other groups because it is so easy for them to do so, but all too often, Black leaders do as well. Quality leadership is the only answer to all the problems we face.
This moment has come before—in 2014, most recently—and will come again. It’s unfortunate how easily we forget this. What matters is the generation of consistent and perpetual momentum toward the imposition of truly anti-racist initiatives and the diversification of the core of older institutions (such as those in higher education). In our case, curricula are at the core of what we do. Those of us with an interest in change should leverage these moments to maximize the generation of momentum through allyship and coalition-building, as well as concrete advancement of initiatives.
Christopher Jenkins, Associate Dean of Academic Support, Oberlin Conservatory
Unfortunately, I remember a lot of racial injustice when I was in kindergarten. My parents wanted to provide us a better education than what our local public school district could, so they enrolled my sister and me in a private Catholic school, along with a childhood friend of mine named Raven. I was one of two Black children in the class. Each day, the teacher’s aide would mispronounce my name, call me slurs or random names, and sometimes enforce corporal punishment, something I wouldn’t see happen with my white classmates. I remember in one instance my mother arguing with the aide because the aide kept saying I was Haitian and some other random ethnicity when she clearly knew I was Jamaican and Filipino. However, the aide alluded that my being Haitian had something to do with my ‘problematic’ behavior.
I had the very unfortunate experience of actually facing [outrage by how Black people are treated]. [I]n one of my previous jobs, I was well known throughout the organization for my work ethic and my accomplishments. When it came time for a promotion, I was told by my supervisor that I wasn’t the right fit because Black people just didn’t belong in leadership positions in the higher education industry. It really struck me to the core how easily these words came out of his mouth. It was as if he were reciting facts rather than a very biased and outdated opinion. To this day, those words still haunt me, and yet they continue to motivate me to prove him wrong.
To be as blunt as possible, this is a turning point in which the world is seeing if Americans truly care about equity. When I first came to Oberlin, I was a bit shocked to face microaggressions and sometimes overt racist experiences with faculty, staff, and, students. However, [this moment] proved that people were and are more willing to position themselves as advocates than actually be agents of change due to the low risks they have to take on in their daily lives. These next few years will truly help Black people identify who they can actually trust and who truly cares about racial injustice beyond sharing an Instagram post or showing up to a protest once in their lives.
André Douglas, Area Coordinator for Multicultural and Identity-based Communities, Oberlin College
When I think about my first time witnessing racial injustice, I think about an incident concerning my late father and the police. The year was 1975, and I was 6 years old. My father was mowing our lawn in his work/dress clothes. On this particular day, my mother caught a glimpse from our dining room window of police officers in my father’s face outside. She ran to the front door and asked them what was going on. I ran to the front door as well. The police were asking for my father’s identification, and my mother ran and got it. Even after telling them that he lived in the house, he still had to give them physical proof. It’s still mind-boggling and infuriating to this day. After my mother showed them my father’s identification, the police officers nonchalantly walked away, offering no apology. Even with all of the privileges that my parents’ careers afforded them and me, I can still see the expression on my father’s face as he watched his little girl see him being targeted by police as he mowed his own lawn. I had never seen that expression on my father’s face before, and after all these years, I will never forget it.
I have to give you the context of where we lived. At that time, we were the only Black family on 6th Avenue, a major street in a wealthy neighborhood with large homes in Denver, Colorado. However, both my parents came from very humble beginnings. My mother had eight [siblings] and grew up poor in a rural Texas community. She was the first in her immediate family to graduate from college. She attended Prairie View A&M University, where she majored in mathematics and minored in physics.
My father came from a family of five children who were separated at birth. Their mother was a school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, but she had to go to Arkansas to have her children because she couldn’t be a teacher and mother in St. Louis. My father and his siblings were raised by various families in different cities across the country. At an early age, my father had to become a breadwinner for his paternal grandmother and younger sister in St. Louis. Because of his upbringing, my father always saw himself as a protector of and provider for his family, particularly women.
My father and mother worked hard to get their feet in the doors of good jobs. My dad had a major management job as an electrical engineer at Western Electric (which later became AT&T). Back then, my mom was the only woman and only Black woman computer programmer at Western Electric and years later became an IT executive with Bell Laboratories, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and IBM. Their goal was to be able to provide a home for me and also give me access to opportunities, like an education at the private school that my father’s colleagues at Western Electric routinely praised.
Even with all of the privileges that my parents’ careers afforded them and me, I can still see the expression on my late father’s face as he watched his little girl see him being targeted by police as he mowed his own lawn. I had never seen that expression on my father’s face before, and after all these years, I will never forget it.
Carolyn Cunningham Ash ’91
From as early I can remember, I felt a sense of security living in Oberlin. I’m a biracial person, and it was brought to my attention early on that Oberlin is a bubble that lies in a rather conservative and homogenous area. I saw this playing sports early on. I played baseball from the time I was 9, and I remember going to other places and being very aware that we had a racially diverse team, but the other teams didn’t.
I was probably about 10 years old. It was always kind of known that if you were a person of color you stayed away from [nearby] Amherst, especially after dark. But there was a movie theater in the middle of town. My mom dropped us off at the theater—me, my sister, and a Black friend from Oberlin. After the movie, while we were waiting for my mom to pick us up, a black van pulled up. The driver looked back and said, ‘There goes three of them gosh darn Negros.’ Though he wasn’t saying ‘gosh darn Negros’’ He slammed on his brakes and did a U-turn and was coming right at us. Just at that time, my mom pulled up and we jumped into the car. But he followed us out of town. We were three kids. My sister was just a little older than me. I wonder to this day what would have happened if my mom hadn’t pulled up right then. It was a traumatic experience and something I carried with me for a while. It made me more aware of my surroundings after that. Growing up in Oberlin has really taught me to relate to people of different cultures, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It taught me that outside of this town, it’s not that easy.
I don’t think we would have the same dialogue if Trump was president for the next four years. We wouldn’t have those opportunities on a national level. I’m an optimistic person, I think change will continue to happen, but the speed at which I think change is going to happen is going to continue to be slow. Even with the new administration. A wake-up call is that we had 73 million people who voted for Trump. To me that’s saying, okay, we have a long way to go. I just hope that a lot of people don’t lose their lives before we start having those discussions.
Chris Donaldson ’89, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Academic Success Programs, Oberlin College
The George Floyd murder was an epiphany for me because it made me realize that if the majority of Americans believed in equity and justice for all it would have been accomplished long ago. It also made me realize that the Government--Federal, State, and Local never truly supported equity or justice for blacks. I say this because if the so-called laws supporting equity and justice were enforced by the Government surely the culture would have been impacted by now. Below is a version of a poem I wrote after talking with my nieces and nephews about George Floyd’s murder.
Chicago and 38th, Why?“I am disgusted and sickened,” says the 12yr. old
In December 2020, the New York Times reported that its most-read articles of the year dealt with the presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Life or death issues. Caught on camera, the killing of George Floyd in 2020 made painfully visible the generally invisible movement of anti-Black racism in this country (for many who just couldn’t see it previously). The justice work is harder now because we are getting closer to disrupting the systems that conspire to make anti-Black racism look normal. Pressure points. The pressures of this moment will move us closer to the promise of this country to be a more perfect union, and that gives me hope. A new and just American landscape is on the other side of this moment of authentic engagement with difference. The time is now for courageous leadership that builds stronger and more just institutions through truth-telling, reparation, and reconciliation. Breaking points and breakthroughs.
Donica Thomas Varner, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, Oberlin College
I have experienced outrage at the treatment of Black people many times in my life. I would even venture to say that being Black in America is to be constantly outraged and having to practice distress tolerance on a daily basis. However, in light of George Floyd’s murder and the global activism sparked in support of Black Lives Matter in 2020, I am outraged that it took non-Blacks so long to BELIEVE OUR EXPERIENCES. George Floyd was not the first Black person unjustly murdered by the police. Nevertheless, his life made a much more significant impact on greater society, and dare I say it—white people—solely because the world was forced to confront this reality because we have been required to stay at home [due to COVID-19]. So, I would like to say ‘finally’ and ‘about time’ to all of those who recently woke up to the reality of the USA not being ‘the land of the free’ for everyone.
Maya K. Akinfosile, Therapist, Oberlin College Counseling Center
My first memory of encountering racism: I was in third grade at a school across town. First day. The teacher seemed young and pretty. Like on TV. I thought that she’d be nice. I don’t remember her exact words, but I remember how I felt in that moment. She made sure that I understood that I was a disruption and was to stay out of her way. The other bright and expectant young brown faces who rode the same bus understood as well. Early in the year, after doing poorly on an assignment, she sent me home with a note that was sure to get me in trouble again. My parents both worked hard, taught my brother and me how to read, expected more from us, and did not play. I showed the note to an older kid whom I looked up to and knew to be brilliant.
He did not see the problem: ‘Johnny, copy the white boy’s paper.’
Johnny Coleman, Professor of Studio Art and Africana Studies, Oberlin College
Ever since I was a little girl, the injustices faced by Black people of African descent in the United States during the transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era have deeply saddened and angered me. In my own family history, I learned about my grandparents growing up in families of sharecroppers in Alabama, picking cotton for a living. My mother was born in Ohio but told stories of segregation that she experienced as a little girl traveling to and through the Deep South with my grandparents. Now, finally, perhaps people are starting to come to terms with their own prejudices. Maybe now we can start to heal the long history of racism in this country? It’s centuries overdue.
Eboni A. Johnson ‘97
The first time I experienced racial injustice was during an all-girls’ high school college tour to Tennessee. I mean, when you’re from Chicago, you’re from Chicago. You think that you can handle anything. But, picture this: a large group of young Black teens going into the local Steak ’n Shake with their three counselors.
The moment we stepped into the restaurant, all heads icily turned toward us. The stares of the white customers darted our way, and I could feel my hairs standing. In what felt like a memory (reliving?) of my mother’s and grandmother’s past, I quickly became conscious of my identities as a Black person and as a Black woman.
That experience sticks and shakes like a tree. The looks haunt and complement an unspoken language with its own complex rules; a set of rules with goal posts that could be moved at any time. It never quite settles. It grows into doubt, making you check yourself at every interaction. You begin to wonder if you dress or speak correctly or whether you’ll be labeled incompetent by your prejudiced boss as your white counterparts pass on with ease, less responsibility, and consequences of their actions. It’s wondering whether your ‘difficult’ name will be chopped and spat out, tacking onto the passive prejudice that goes unnoticed. Yet, you’re required to chew on the names of white folks who might earn more than you. It’s the kind of doubt that follows and makes you wonder if there’s truly ever a space of healing immense trauma, whether generational or individual.
I’m a firm believer that change isn’t linear. I believe in the process. With change, transformation is created. I’m a firm believer in #blackgirlmagic and that our experiences, although heavy, are what prepares us for times requiring both strength and vulnerability.
Tekikki Walker ’12
If you are Black, 2020 felt like the apex of a centuries-long pandemic of racial capitalism in America. Racial capitalism is the extractive practice of deriving political and economic value based on race. Still, there are some people who believe this moment is distinctive from the legacies of exclusion, colonialism, and violence that has long fueled our country’s operation. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has exposed the intense realities of structural racism and life under the police state to those who have long accepted the myth of racial progress and American exceptionalism. With the cracks in the pavement unearthed, we are now tasked with confronting the pleasantries of color-blind ideology, race-neutrality, and meritocratic ideals that have promoted BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) exclusion and subjugation. We have to reflect deeply and meaningfully about our own relationship to power, privilege, and oppression to do abolition work that quells the longstanding stain of racial capitalism.
Aliyah Turner (Abu-Hazeem) ’17
You ask if there was a point in my life where I was outraged at the treatment of people of color. When would I not be? I can point to a boiling point during my time at Oberlin though: First Trayvon Martin, then Tamir Rice. May they rest in peace. I graduated from Oberlin in 2013, just as the #blacklivesmatter movement was gaining momentum and as our nation watched the news vilify two children—as if they deserved to die by the hands of the police.
There is no one moment when I became aware that racism and racial injustice are still in the American bloodstream. That injustice is so much a part of what it means to be American that a protest is characterized as a lack of patriotism. That Black children don’t get to be children. That my non-Black colleagues could remain apathetic and unfazed. This current moment isn’t new.
Nicollette Mitchell ’13
As a mother to two children at home and as a professor in the classroom, I get to interact with bright, creative, curious, and motivated young Black people. I want them to have security and safety, enjoy life, and use their knowledge and skills to obtain their dreams. Yet, the anti-Blackness and injustice embedded in America’s foundation continue to work against our lives today, whether experienced through day-to-day microaggressions, systemic inequities, or life-threatening brutality. I want sustained societal and media focus on these violences so they are forefront in our minds when we speak, vote, protest, make government and economic policy, and organize and serve our institutions. I want us all to see we can work to dismantle the racism that will otherwise be our future.
Chanda Feldman, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing, Oberlin College
We were instructed to wear our Sunday best: flowery dresses, lace socks, shirts with collars and perhaps a bow tie, and hard-soled shoes. We were taking a class field trip to Severance Hall. Squeals of excitement and laughter filled the school bus as we headed toward University Circle. Our sixth-grade class arrived to a swarm of school children from all over the city. We felt the stares and heard the whispers as we walked inside. Our seats were on the main floor. As we took our seats, we noticed that most of the other students were white. Once the concert hall grew dark, a classmate in front of me turned and asked if I had tossed something at him. I said no, but soon felt something touch the top of my head. I turned around to the classmate sitting behind me and he pointed toward the balcony. The white students sitting above us were throwing tiny spit balls. Our class was being pelted. We informed our teacher, who got up from her seat and pointed a finger in disgust, silently ordering them to stop. They did not. At intermission she told us to remain seated as she left. Needless to say, the second half of the concert continued without incident. But by then our enthusiasm had waned. When the concert was over, the floor in our area was covered with wads of crumbled, wet paper, making it appear as if our class had left behind the nasty debris. We rode in silence back to school. Our teacher told us she was proud of our behavior and reminded us that some people will not like us, even hate us, because of the color of our skin, because of who we are, what we look like, and what we represent, but that we needed to always be and do our best. No. Matter. What.
Marsha Lynn Bragg, former Assistant Director of Web Communications, Oberlin College
Most Black people are familiar with ‘the talk.’ It’s something you are told repeatedly in mini episodes when you are a child. I remember the very first one. I was learning how to read and was following my mother around the house, reading out loud to her. Out of nowhere she stopped and gave me a long look. ‘You are just as good as they are, but you will have to be better than them to just be equal. You can do anything you set your mind to. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.’ In my small child brain, I didn’t really understand what Mamma was saying. These spontaneous talks would happen many times over the years: ‘They are not better than you.’ ‘The game is not the same.’ At some points as I got older, I started to resent them, telling myself that Mamma was living in the past. Until one day, sadly, I understood.
Yvonne Gay, Photography Projects Manager and Special Projects Coordinator, Oberlin College
Unfortunately, for most of my life, [racism] has been a concern. I can’t say that I can think of a unique moment in which my awareness emerged. I’d more accurately call it a slow burn. Those moments when the security of your own racial context is penetrated by the violence of a moment. The insidious nature of racism is its normalization. It begins with seeing no one who looks like you on television, and when you do, they only marginally resemble you and the people you know and love. You laugh at the absurdity of these images, only to be shocked when you meet actual people who you realize take those caricatures for reality. Then when you see empowering images, you feel affirmed, actually seen.
I would have to say that my first real experience, although I didn’t recognize it as such then, was in kindergarten. My teacher consistently punished me for being able to read, asking me constantly if I thought I was better than the other Black and Brown children. ‘Who do you think you are?’ she would sneer at me and call the children together to taunt me. I was confused by this, and humiliated. Another teacher, a Black teacher who was not my teacher, pulled my mother aside during conferences and advised her to move me out of that school entirely. She told my mother that my current teacher would crush me if she had the chance. In my adulthood, I realize that this Black educator, Ms. Marilyn Beckford, saved me. She knew that my teacher was racist, and that her racist insistence on keeping me in "my place" was designed to destroy the life chances of all of the Black children in that school. Now that I look back on it, this was my first real experience with institutionalized racism in public education. That and other experiences have shaped me as an educator.
Meredith M. Gadsby, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies, Oberlin College
I thought it was an interesting idea to think of a point in time, [when I felt outraged by issues of race with respect to people of color] because the truth of the matter is, as a person of color—in this instance, a Black person—is that these things happen all the time. And so, in order to survive it or be able to exist with a sense of sanity, you have to be able to figure out how to place them and how to manage them because there are different levels of the intensity of these moments, and because they happen all the time.
I grew up in the deep South and my parents have a particular experience with racism from that generation. My uncle used to say, ‘If you ever get up in the morning and forget you’re Black, sometime during the day somebody is going to remind you.’ I think that point is true. That sometime during the day you’re going to be reminded. His point was that something’s going to happen; some situations [are] going to come up. I think his point was that you’re going to be reminded in a negative way. Not that you’re not proud of your ethnicity and your background, but someone’s going to say something that reminds you of the space that you happen to inhabit.
And so, yeah, I thought that obviously there are things that I’ve been outraged by, but there’s something every day that you’re frustrated by [and] are concerned by. The thing that came to my mind of a point in time, that’s so outrageous, [are] these shootings of unarmed Black folks happening so frequently that we have to almost measure our outrage because we would be in a perpetual state of outrage. Cause it feels like you can wake up every other morning or so and see something along those lines. I certainly was particularly outraged around children in cages. That was just an outrageous act. But like I said, it’s not a point in time because it happens frequently enough.
The truth of the matter is [you have to] measure your outrage because being in a perpetual state of outrage is not a sustainable way of being.
My parents are from Little Rock, Arkansas, so whenever our family is talking about our history—how we got to where we are—there are all of these stories interspersed with their interactions with white folks that had those [life lesson] elements in it.
When we were growing up, my mom put us in the swimming pool really early, like six months old. When we were 4, 5, 6, we started to swim on swim teams and that sort of thing. And at the time we were on an all-Black team, because that’s all that was possible. There was segregation and you couldn’t be on any other team—I was born in 1968 and my older brother was born in 1965. Desegregation didn’t happen until he was in second grade.
So, I was at a swim meet, swimming in the final heat. I was a pretty good swimmer. They gave out ribbons to the people who finished their heat first, and they give out the metal to the person who wins the final races. So, we were in the last heat. We were the fastest of all of those people and we swim this race and I beat this young white girl, but they decided because it was a close race to give the ribbon to me and to give the first-place metal to the young white girl, even though by all accounts I won the race. So, they came over to give my parents the ribbon—I can remember that I’m so small that the railing is above my head.
This woman tries to hand the ribbon to my dad. He throws the ribbon back at her, and I can remember seeing it float down like a feather it’s that vivid of a memory for me. He told her, ‘If you’re not going to give her the medal, then I don’t want the ribbon. We get in the car and this is the image: The door slams, and I’m in the backseat. My dad turns around to me and says, ‘That was your fault. I told you, if you don’t beat them by a mile, you will not get what you deserve.’ Now, when people hear that story, they all go, ‘Wow!’ Here’s what I learned from it: You’ve got to be better than, because that’s just what it requires. You can feel like it’s unfair—and it is—but I don’t care because you’ve got to be better than cause that’s what is going to be required. We can be upset about it and we can wallow in it and we can spend time lamenting it. But I can just tell you that’s not going to be how you succeed. My parents’ reaction to these things was that we’re not going to be a victim of the societal situation that we’re in.
You win, in spite of. You succeed, in spite of it. And that requires that you win by a mile, so that they cannot deny it. Because you have demonstrated it. Now you can also critique [what he said] and have issues with it, but what it has meant for me is that intensity of work ethic, so that I will not be denied. That is what it engendered in me. It also, in an upside-down way, gave me control over situations that are unfair.
Isn’t this terrible? They’re racist; that could have been the conversation. And I’m not saying that’s not a legitimate one. But that’s not how my parents felt about it. They felt that was your fault. You made it too close. ‘If you had done what I told you to do, and beat that girl by a mile, they wouldn’t have even, they couldn’t have dared not giving you the trophy.’ I am 4 or 5, and it is one of the most vivid memories I have.
Think about their generation. They didn’t just succeed. They succeeded in a world in which society was purposely trying to prevent them from succeeding. There was a conscious institutional and purposeful effort to keep them from success. And yet they succeeded anyway.
Some people, after hearing that story, would spend more time being frustrated by how my parents reacted. I think they would say, ‘Wait a minute, it’s not your fault. They should have called out the system. They spent time saying that you were the problem.’ And I can appreciate that critique. But I think my parents would probably say, well, they did both things. They were out there protesting and making the system better. And they would also say, ‘And you’ve got to succeed in spite of the system, because I don’t know when the system is changing. And I don’t know if we’re going to be the fix. And this system requires excellence and that’s just what it requires. We know it’s wrong, we know it should be different. And even as we change that, we’re not going to use that as an excuse for not being the best. And we’re going to be the best in spite of this system.’
I think because my parents are incredible about that lesson for me, because I don’t know if I would have done what I’ve been able to do in my career without that level of intensity.
But here’s what I do think I do. I’ve always been a big believer in that Martin Luther King quote about the arc of the moral universe bending is long, but it bends towards justice. And I’ve always thought that quote was an accurate description of how I hope and believe these things go.
Right after George Floyd was murdered, I was on a Zoom class and they were talking about their reaction. And a lot of students were just very much like, you know, ‘Things will never change.’ They had a kind of a hopelessness. And the same was true around some discussions around the election and other things. And so I said to them, ‘One of the things you need to always do, whenever you say things never change, is you need to make sure that you have a couple of old Black folks to talk to.’ I have 80 and 85-year-old parents. And they will say, ‘Well, let me help reacclimate you— things have changed.’
I sit in this seat because things have changed. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments where we feel like we’ve stepped back two steps. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments that remind us of a past that we thought was gone. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have plenty of work to do, but let’s be honest how things actually are. And so because of that, we have the clarity to know that things can change because they have changed.
What’s important about that quote from Martin Luther King, because people never really go further down in that quote, is he talks about each one of us being a part of the mosaic of justice.
And that each one of us in that mosaic has their part to play. We can do so much together if we’re in this multitude.
I think one of the ways to be an ally is to one, listen. I think we have underestimated the art of listening in our society. I think that what happened in the protests [for George Floyd] was that, white folks listened, meaning they saw that video, and heard it in their spirit.
Carmen Twillie Ambar, President, Oberlin College