Missouri has found itself in the center of an ongoing conversation on racial issues in America once again. Over the weekend, people hit the streets in protest after former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of first degree murder when he shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man in St. Louis.
These forms of protest are nothing new for the St. Louis area. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer sparked protests in Ferguson on the issue of police brutality. In 2015, protests at the University of Missouri by African-American students led to the resignation of UM System President Tim Wolfe, but forced the university to tackle issues of race and diversity.
Recently, a group of people in Cape Girardeau came together to figure out how to address this problem. Rev. Renita Marie Green of St. James AME Church and Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs an instructor and the director of health communication for the department of communication studies at Southeast Missouri State University are just two of the four creators behind a new community conversations series providing verbal tools to embolden people to speak out against racism.
On how the community conversations got started
Hildebrand Clubbs: At a local coffee shop, a woman of color had noticed a sign in the window and had posted something on Facebook about how a sign that says ‘Back the Blue’ can make people of color feel. And she received so much negative attention for that. Nobody seemed–the owners of the business didn’t seem to step in. I mean this is a young woman. This is a student at Southeast [Missouri State University]. It showed me how much our community has to learn. And I don’t know that any of these people who were saying these horrible things to her would classify themselves as racists. But yet they were saying very racist things and they were perpetuating a system that is racist. That was most clearly evident when then she was fired from another business that she worked at in Jackson, because the owners felt that it would be bad for business for her to continue to work there. I just thought this is systemic racism. This is seeing it in institutions. This is an institutional racism. Because I was feeling some kind of way about it, I contacted Renita, I contacted my friend Debbie Lee-DiStefano and then also my friend Lindsay Chapman who is a social worker, and we started talking about what we could do. We came up with the idea of an economic kind of sit in that we did at the business that had fired this young lady. But we said that this action is one thing. This shows the business that there are people in the community that don’t agree with them. But we also felt that we needed to have conversations, because people were noticing that we were there and they noticed that we weren’t ordering. But [I] don’t think they really understood why. Why this was a problem. And so we came up with the idea of the community conversations based on that, because we feel like it’s important for people to have a safe space, to ask these questions, to understand what racism is, [and] to learn the vocabulary that they need. Because what perpetuates it is silence and particularly white silence.
On why these conversations were intended for white people
Green: So it’s tricky. I’ll own that, because that was mostly me saying that. We don’t want to burden our black friends with having to constantly be the ones explaining everything all the time. But it’s tricky because we also don’t want to exclude our black friends from participating in the conversation…I talked to my own children about how to talk about this and they were like ‘yeah, it’s going to be bad no matter what you say. If you ask us to participate, we’re going to feel obligated to participate. And if you don’t ask us to participate, we’re going to feel left out. So this was the best language we could come up with. It really is for white people to talk to white people about our stuff, so that we can process and get better language and be able to talk at the Thanksgiving table when our racist relatives are talking ignorant talk.That we have a stronger language. We have more courage and boldness and feel the support of a community that is not afraid. And one of the interesting things after the conversation last week, a person came up to me and told me how it used to be. How losing your job would have been the best thing to happen to you. That you would have literally gotten run out of town. If you got ran out of town that would have even been better than the other options. So there’s a culture of people who are still alive today who remember a time when you could not advocate for people of color and live to tell the story or continue in this community. There’s still anxiety. There’s still apprehension. There’s still a culture of silence. And it’s perpetuated by the stories that are continuously told. And then with the firing of the young girl in Jackson that reinforces [it]. So even if those stories seem like urban legends, then when this young woman is fired it brings validity to those urban legends and people revert back to their places of silence. So we want to provide opportunity for people to know that you don’t have to be silent.
On why these conversations are important for Cape Girardeau
Green: I think there’s a lot of shame. We don’t want to be known as racist. Typically if we ask a person do you feel like you’re a racist, or the first thing they’ll say is I’m not racist. One of the most popular little comebacks is not all white people. We don’t want to be associated with those white people and we’re good people. Particularly in Cape Girardeau I’ve met so many good people and just they’re good people. But when we perpetuate a system that was designed to prosper some, while not considering the prosperity and the success of others, sometimes that becomes the problem. We don’t see ourselves as intentionally doing harm. We don’t say I set out to hurt someone or the system is set out to hurt, but if the system is only set up for certain people to succeed then other people being hurt by the system by default doesn’t make us not guilty. We’re still guilty of systemic racism. We’re guilty by participation. We’re guilty by association. That’s hard for us to admit that we’re guilty. We don’t want to be guilty. It’s hard for us to wrap our brain around it, because when we think about racists and racism we think about those tiki` torchers. We think about the people with the white hoods. That’s what we think racists are. But that’s extremism. That isn’t everyday racism. Everyday racism and I said this [during the first community conversations] is when sweet little grandma says, ‘I don’t know why they’re raising such a fuss. We’re good to our black people. And we treat our black people good.’ And actually I was told here in this city that I needed to stop stirring things up, because I can relax because ‘we’re good to our black people here reverend.’ That’s what I was told and that was last year. That wasn’t a 100 years ago.
So when people have this sense that they’re good people and they’re trying to do good things and we don’t understand how even our best intentions miss the mark, it can also feel very deflating. And make us feel like ‘well no matter what I do, if I say this I’m a racist. If I do that I’m a racist. Everything is being a racist so therefore nothing is being a racist. And people shut down and they pull away from the conversation. So it’s very tricky being able to provide that space for us to be able to see ourselves, to see the best of who we can be. To believe the best of who we can be and purge from us the stuff that we didn’t even place inside ourselves.
On how Brooke talks to her kids about race
Hildebrand Clubbs: It’s sort of always been a part of something that we have talked about. My mother was a professor at Governors State University near Chicago, and so I grew up seeing more diversity and seeing that the people who are walking in the hallways matched the people that were in the offices at that university. There was great diversity among the professors and the staff. So I had the benefit of that as well. And so my mom would back me up when I would be telling these things. My mom could talk about marching with [Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.] when she was in college. So my kids have kind of grown up with this, which has in a way made them social deviants. They vary from the norm. So when an opinion is expressed in school and they think ‘that’s not what my mom told me.’ They will say that. And then they sometimes reap the consequences of that. Whether it’s friends not being their friends anymore or whether it’s a teacher telling them, ‘well we’re not talking about that.’ So they have to come home sometimes and I have to say I know that it’s hard, but just know that we’re really proud of you for standing up and saying these things. But it’s difficult. Just like Renita says in the way that white privilege is extended, it depends on what kind of a white person you are…My son was at a friend’s house this weekend and the parents had invited some folks to watch a football game and he overheard them talking about the incident that we started off here discussing in Jackson and they were saying, ‘boy that girl, well she learned her lesson.’ And they were saying lots of negative things about the girl who had made the original comments and they said ‘did you see somebody started a GoFundMe page for her. That’s ridiculous.’ So, Eli told me that and goes ‘mom, weren’t you the one that started that?’ And I said ‘yeah, honey, because you know, I know I didn’t have any money if I wasn’t working when I was in school. It’s important and I didn’t want her to have to sacrifice something, because she had lost her job unjustly. And a lot of people contributed.’ And he goes ‘yeah, I kind of thought about saying that you started it, but they weren’t really talking to me.’ And I said, ‘well, what would have motivated you to say something?’ He said ‘well if they would have said the N-word, I would have called you and dad and had you come get me.’ And I thought for him as a young boy, the idea of don’t disrespect your elders is what keeps him quiet. And so that’s a fine line that we have kind of have to walk. To speak out for justice, but you can also then be perceived as being disrespectful. So that’s something that my husband and I try to balance.
Want to attend a community conversation? Here are the details below.
What: Community Conversations
When: 6:30-8 p.m. on Tuesday’s
Where: Cup ‘N Cork – Cape Girardeau, MO